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THEATER How A Boy Falls
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-02-07

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Playwright: Steven Dietz

At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. Tickets: 847-673-6300; www.northlight.org; $30-$89. Runs through: Feb. 29

Mitch and Sam ogle an attractive young woman in a coffee joint. Although they've just met, slightly sleazy Mitch ( Travis A. Knight ) urges Sam ( Sean Parris ) to hit on her. Instead, an older man ( Tim Decker ) enters and sits with Michelle, called Chelle ( Cassidy Slaughter Mason ). Caring little about Chelle's credentials, uber-wealthy Paul quickly hires her as au pair for his young son, and almost immediately tells romantic tales of how he met and his wife, Miranda ( Michelle Duffy ). This all happens in the first five minutes of this 75-minute world premiere, which goes lickety-split. Join the club if you're not sure where you are or how you got there.

One thing is certain: the child disappears while playing hide-and-seek with Chelle. Apparently he fell from the balcony of Paul and Miranda's seacoast mansion … but there's no body and security camera footage has been erased. What gives? Paul coerces Chelle to remain in the mansion while Miranda travels. He never acts on what appear to be sexual intentions towards Chelle. Miranda, meanwhile, reveals all is not rosy in her marriage and business partnership with Paul. Chelle, too, has a secret past. And Mitch, it turns out, works for Paul. Or is it Miranda? And Sam, when he finally befriends Chelle, spins a story, too.

Distinguished veteran author Steven Dietz—perhaps America's most widely-produced playwright who isn't a household name—keeps five plates spinning in the air in this psychological thriller, aided by capable director Halena Kays. None of the five characters is whom he/she appears to be and all are hiding something, which ends up being either too much or too little.

The too much part is the speed and number of twists, reversals and revelations, although Dietz is a clever puzzle master and the rapid-fire plot holds audience attention. How A Boy Falls is good theater in terms of devices and mechanics. But it's too little because hardly any time is devoted to character development. The people you should care about—Chelle primarily but possibly Sam and Miranda—never give enough of themselves emotionally for a viewer to connect. In the end, Chelle is as callous as Paul ( the play's fall guy ), although she gets away clean and he doesn't. I don't think the audience would mind if the play were 12 minutes longer, with that time devoted to character-building and deeper exposition. Also, the amusing dichotomy between Sam and Paul—one loves a paper trail, the other loathes it—could be exploited more.

Lizzie Bracken's scenic design nicely echoes the play: the mansion is suggested by high, white, cold, opaque gauze walls, standing atop three broadly curving steps suggesting the seashore below and the twists of the plot.


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