Bess Wohl’s new comedy Make Believe portrays a quartet of Gen-X siblings at two points of life-changing family crisis. The first is in 1980, when the Conlees, two sisters and two brothers, are small children. The second is 32 years later. In both instances, the kids are gathered—it’s tempting to say “barricaded”—in a gargantuan nursery at the top of their parents’ luxe suburban home.
This attic room (which scenic designer David Zinn has outfitted with a giant playhouse, child-size furnishings, and an abundance of toys) is a zone where, as youngsters, the Conlees frolic, squabble, torture one another, work out differences, and air their fears about what’s amiss elsewhere in their world. Three decades on, when the siblings have reached middle age, it’s where they reunite to contemplate how they’ll handle a bewildering future.
At the play’s start, the children are arriving home from school, expecting snacks, blowing off steam, and getting on one another’s nerves. Everything seems ordinary, to them and to the audience—until it doesn’t.
“Dad is on a business trip,” says Kate (Maren Heary), who’s verbal, bossy, and 10 years old.
“Mom said he was dead,” replies Addie (Casey Hilton), who, at 7, is mercurial yet sweet.
Kate quickly corrects her: “Mom said she wished he was dead. It’s not the same thing.”
So Dad’s accounted for, but Mom has gone missing.
Bits of information arrive through voices, overheard in real time, via the family’s telephone answering machine: Mom hasn’t shown up for her appointment with a hairdresser; a neighbor has received a vague message from her about emergency child care; and Dad, who’s annoyed and swearing a blue streak, has been trying in vain to reach her from the locale of his business trip.
Left to their own devices for the first time in their lives, the children are tired, hungry, and spooked. The eldest—12-year-old Chris (Ryan Foust), who’s pushy and selfish—disappears for a while, returning with food (plus booze and cigarettes) from a source he refuses to disclose. Three decades later, the others will figure out how Chris snagged the provender and contraband. The answer is a shock, but it permits them to begin connecting a lot of dots.
Wohl, the author of Small Mouth Sounds and Continuity (among other recent plays), has mastered the art of withholding crucial information effectively and timing revelations for maximal impact. Her plays bristle with suspense about the characters’ psychology. The dialogue sparkles with wit that’s hip and distinctively off-beat, but the subtext is frequently disturbing and sad (and always believable).
In the first part of Make Believe, Wohl divulges a lot about the dynamics of the Conlee family through the children’s games, especially when the four play house, with Chris as an abusive father, Kate a whining mother, and Addie a put-upon tyke. The fourth Conlee is 5-year-old Carl (Harrison Fox), who doesn’t speak and handles the pressure of being the youngest in a pack of assertive personalities by impersonating a needy puppy.
Michael Greif directs a first-rate cast, including four juvenile actors remarkable in stage presence and thespian technique. The adult performers (Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Brad Heberlee, and Samantha Mathis) build cunningly on what the younger actors accomplish in the first half. The transition from one time period to the next, across a three-decade gap, is smooth and clear, with characterizations consistent both in the script and in the actors’ interpretations of Wohl’s text.
The playroom setting and the privileged, urbanely contentious siblings call to mind Holiday, Philip Barry’s 1928 high comedy about the rich, dysfunctional Seton family. American society (including its upper crust) has changed drastically in the nine decades between Barry’s Setons and Wohl’s Conlees; but Make Believe is Philip Barry for the age of Trump. Wohl’s writing is funny, polished, and poignant (just like Barry’s); her dialogue is frequently ugly, profane, and overtly painful (which Barry’s never is). Both dramatists examine, with gimlet eye and a light touch, the way their characters—no, the way all of us—are haunted by the ghosts of childhood. (In a couple of scenes of Make Believe, the child actors even float around in ghostly bedsheets.)
Through some kind of alchemy, Wohl and Barry transform psychic pain and its sources into the stuff of comedy. It’s an uncanny dramaturgical feat. And Wohl does it in just 80 minutes, without intermission.
Make Believe runs through Sept. 22 at the Second Stage Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd St. at Eighth Ave.). Performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and on Sunday, Aug. 18, and 3 p.m. all other Sundays. For information and tickets, call (212) 541-4516 or visit 2st.com.