Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth joins other recent plays in tackling a hot-button issue: Admissions at Lincoln Center examined affirmative action, and Miss You Like Hell at the Public is entwined with the deportation of illegal aliens, or undocumented immigrants, depending on one’s political leaning. Ferrentino’s chosen subject is gun violence in schools.
Ferrentino focuses on two teenagers who have recently been affected by a school shooting. A double-decker set by Dane Laffrey shows two apartments on different floors of the same building. Dan (Lucas Papaelias), a former stand-up comic who now works for the city water department, is a single father living on the lower level with his daughter, Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis). Julie has a frequent visitor, a boy named Zander who can’t decide if he’s really attracted to her or not.
The tipoff to the main issue comes fairly quickly. Apart from Julie’s terror at thunderclaps, which requires her father to come into her bedroom at night and soothe her by explaining every noise—the rain, drips from the gutter, the traffic outside—she and Zander talk about “that day” when “they walked us out of school.”
Their schoolmate Noelle was one of nine victims, and only recently has Noelle’s mother, Lisa Harris (Cassie Beck), begun to rejoin life. As it happens, Dan has offered to store some popcorn Noelle had agreed to sell in a competition that Julie had also entered but which Noelle won. To further complicate Julie’s feelings, she knowingly bought clothes that the wealthier Noelle had left at Goodwill, and now she is feeling guilty by wearing them—especially with Noelle’s mother helping Dan bring the boxes into their living room.
Ferrentino’s plot is full of holes and coincidences that stretch credibility to the limit. As written, the character of Julie can be infuriating. She claims not to know that school shootings have happened before in this age of social media, and yet she’s an advocate of world peace and eliminating homelessness, so she isn’t a hermit. She’s even familiar with the Little Rascals and a Japanese website about breast enlargement! Somehow, though, consistent school shootings are beyond her awareness, and she demands answers from Dan about how many have occurred:
Julie: Dad, more than ten? No way.
Dan: I don’t know the exact number. It’s always changing.
Julie: What? … So why don’t the grown-ups just fix it?!
Under director Rebecca Taichman, Davis invests her performance as Julie with what is probably meant to be youthful passion, but more often comes across as sheer insolence. A scene in which she demands to see the newspaper belonging to the upper-floor tenant, a former cellist in her 80s named Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), should embarrass Dan more than it seems to. Shortly after, Julie climbs the fire escape to knock on Cloris’s window and ask to see the newspaper again, and it turns out that she doesn’t even know Cloris’s name!
Cloris: I’ve known you since you were this big, what do you mean, what’s my name?
Julie: Sorry, I usually just call you the lady upstairs.
Later, while Julie is “visiting” Cloris, Dan opens the door to find Zander there, and tells him “it’s not a good time” for him to see Julie. And what does Zander do? He barges in and yells for Julie, heading into her bedroom, ignoring Dan—and Dan just lets him. Unfortunately, although one wants to care about Dan, his incompetence as an adult makes it hard.
The play isn’t without occasional useful observations, some even humorous, as when Dan tells Julie, “Sometimes you have to do things that make you uncomfortable. That’s basically all being an adult is. Just one awkward social interaction after another.” But even the humor can be facile, as Cloris tells Julie, “When you’re old, everyone you know is dead. Some go to Florida, but that’s pretty much the same.”
It’s only after Julie is barred from school by the actions of Lisa that she seems briefly to understand the poverty that hasn’t allowed her father to buy her an iPhone or laptop, or a violin, which she plays on a rented instrument. But she’s scathing about his low income and insistent about his responsibility. “Dad, do something,” she tells him. “Like what?” Dan asks. “You’re the adult, figure it out!” she yells back.
Perhaps Ferrentino’s presentation of modern teens is accurate, and one’s age or upbringing will determine whether the play comes across as a valid examination of the trauma of school violence or a dire commentary on the rudeness of Generation Z. But too often Julie’s obnoxious behavior proves a barrier to feeling any sympathy.
Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.) presents This Flat Earth through April 29. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call (212) 279-4200 or visit playwrightshorizons.org.