Scott Organ’s opening scene for The Thing With Feathers is deceptively creepy for anyone attuned to the dangers of the Internet. A young girl, Anna (Alexa Shae Niziak), is sitting on her bed, with paperwork around her, and she’s talking to a man named Eric—someone she has never met. They have clearly bonded online over poetry, particularly Emily Dickinson. They recite stanzas of Dickinson’s “Life” to each other: “For each ecstatic instant/We must an anguish pay/In keen and quivering ratio/To the ecstasy.” The voice gently probes elements of her home life and her relationship with her mother. The scene promises a literate, solidly structured drama, and it delivers.
Anna is taken aback when Eric, who lives 900 miles away, arrives at her door the next day with a gift for her 17th birthday. It’s an uncomfortable situation, ameliorated a bit by Zachary Booth’s radiation of innocence and sincerity. Even though Eric is 28, and Anna has just turned 17, Booth manages to convey an unthreatening character honestly in love. Yet there’s something not quite right about him. When the precocious Anna takes him to bed, things turn more troubling.
Anna’s single mother Beth (DeAnna Lenhart), meanwhile, snoops and wheedles, as mothers do, and learns of the online relationship. She is, as she says at one point, Anna’s best friend—and when Eric turns up to declare his love for Anna, she is taken aback. As it happens, she is dating a strapping cop named Tim (Robert Manning, Jr., who makes the most of his confident character in his short scenes). They plan to marry, even though Beth’s first marriage, to Anna’s father, ended very badly.
The situation with Eric dances on the edge of credibility for a while. When he has to hole up in Anna’s bedroom because Beth and Tim are in the kitchen and Anna has plans to go out, the tension mounts. And when the coast is clear, what does he do? He comes into the kitchen as Beth is showering, cuts himself a piece of birthday cake, and sits and eats it. It’s implausible and nerve-wracking in the moment, and yet there’s a credible explanation to come. Organ teases out the ambiguities until one learns that Beth and Eric, whose name is really Jamie, have a history. And then the story becomes even creepier.
Even if at moments some twists are hard to swallow, director Seth Barrish paces the piece well, with familial kitchen scenes that induce calm, and scenes of danger and outright threats that are unsettling. Still, Organ’s characters are occasionally irritating. Beth, for instance, treats her daughter as a best friend or a sister rather than a parent; she behaves as if she hasn’t really grown up—and for good reason. Anna, meanwhile, thinks she is more adult than she is, and casually lies to her mother when she doesn’t ignore her. Realistic or not, the character is a pain. (The actresses also need crisper diction and stronger projection; the early, low-keyed scenes especially need a little more energy.)
Once Eric reveals himself as a former acquaintance of Beth’s, a student she once taught a long time ago and far away, the focus turns to them and the liaison that wrecked Eric emotionally and still hurts him. The incident also forced Beth to disappear and restart her life. Booth has the looks of a leading man, although his pretty-boy aura flirts with the possibility of going to seed before long—he’d be a good Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth. But he has more: as deft as he is in earlier scenes, Booth has a teary monologue with Beth that’s a highlight of the play and makes one appreciate his range (he has been in Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I and on Broadway in The Winslow Boy). His speech explains the damage done to him and yet leaves a sliver of doubt about whether vengeance or forgiveness will be the outcome of his elaborate plan.
At intermission a nearby viewer said, “As a father, I’d kill him.” A woman said that kids nowadays are often like that, deceptive and stupider than they should be, victims of slack parenting: some parents want to be friends with their kids and don’t know how to be parents at all. Any play that has the audience eager to express opinions about what they’re seeing is well worth the watching. The Thing With Feathers is such a one.
The Barrow Group production of The Thing With Feathers runs through Feb. 10 at 312 West 36th St., 3rd floor. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visiting barrowgroup.org.