You've got to admire New York Theater Experiment for its ambition. Engaging its cast in improvisatory workshops, the company, for its latest production, explored how a group of Catholic schoolgirls might cope if they were suddenly stranded on an uninhabited island without food, shelter, or adult supervision. Its touchstone was Lord of the Flies, William Golding's novel in which a group of British schoolboys quickly descend into barbarism under those circumstances. The actors, working from a plot outline and character descriptions supplied by playwrights Laura Gale and Joseph Schultz, developed detailed character histories and then improvised scenes to generate the script. In the dark play that grew out of this collaboration, the nine teenage girls turn catty, selfish, and ultimately savage when left to their own devices after their plane crashes on the shores of a tropical island in the Pacific.
This unorthodox creative process no doubt gave the hard-working ensemble an uncommon personal investment in their roles. But it failed to produce characters with the depth, complexity, and psychological realism that would make us care about their fates. Fallen also falls prey to its own intensity. An unrelenting stew of power games, violence, sexual tension, and suicide, it wilts under its own heat. The addition of a few lighter or quieter moments might have brought some welcome temperature control.
Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, when the United States was absorbed in the Cold War. The two oldest girls, symbolizing liberal democracy and totalitarianism, do battle in the play, just as the two oldest boys do in the novel. The self-assured and sometimes imperious Becky (Meghan Love) initially becomes the group's leader when she musters the support of more girls than her conniving rival Hilary (Dana Berger) gets. But when Becky becomes the target of the group's growing frustration and despair, Hilary exploits shifting alliances and Becky's own neuroses to supplant her.
Standing out among this young cast of varying levels of talent, Berger plays the ruthless Hilary with relish as she coldly manipulates friendships to advance her own interests. Love finds appropriate notes of gentleness and steel in her portrayal of Becky. Shelly Stover, in the role of the plucky, sharp-tongued Julie B., demonstrates remarkable stage presence, though her character, like several others in the ensemble, does not always strike true to life.
The show's design is rudimentary, even by Off-Off-Broadway standards. Given D. Craig M. Napoliello's minimalist set, the lighting and sound must bear a much greater burden in conjuring a sense of place. Sound designer Ben Warner creates a compelling interlay of inner voices and ocean sounds in a crucial suicide scene, but otherwise he does merely serviceable work. Anjeanette Stokes's lighting neither conveys time of day nor distinguishes beach scenes from cave scenes. In one pivotal episode, the lights do not help create the illusion of a forest fire either.
Fallen mostly sticks to strict dramatic realism—with the nastiest violence effectively conducted within earshot offstage. The production gains resonance on those rare occasions when Schultz, serving double duty as director, deploys more obvious stagecraft. A case in point is the opening vignettes in which the entire cast freezes in a sequence of stark dramatic poses intended to convey the plane crash's aftermath. Unfortunately, these moments of dramatic liftoff only serve to underscore the long stretches in between.