The lights come up on a young man shaking a can of shaving cream. In the first of three shaving scenes, he gazes at himself in an invisible mirror positioned at about the third row of the audience and begins, with panache, to apply the foam to his nearly hairless chin. In each of the three scenes, due to a different interruption, the razor does not meet skin, and the foam is swabbed off with a towel. This disrupted act of self-observation and newly formed habit provides an ideal initiation to a terrific play about adolescent consciousness: David Holstein's True Genius, directed by Jill Sierchio. This is the story of a troubled 19-year-old boy's (Scooter) evolving relationship with his mother (Margaret), his imaginary younger brother (Jeffrey), his late father, his alcoholic therapist (Dr. Foyer), and his love interest (Lila). Dr. Foyer is called upon to help Scooter and his mother negotiate the father's emotional and intellectual legacy, but it's in the shrink's waiting room that the important work unfolds: Scooter meets the divine Lila, another teenage patient, who will draw him out of his delusions and fears. Props like the shaving cream, in the hands of this outstanding cast, organize the plot development and emblematize the emotional resonance of the characters' interactions.
A young girl unpacks her purse: a teen magazine, a pack of gummy worms (one bite, one thrown on the floor), a wallet, trinkets, a spoon, and a hammer (more on the hammer later). By the end of the play, Scooter, Lila, Margaret, and Dr. Foyer have all been unpacked, the contents of their psyches shaken out and dumped on the floor; picked through and eventually restored; inventoried but jumbled back into the dark chaos of the purse.
The boy and girl talk to one another's reflection in the shaving mirror from the opening scene. Staring at the "mirror" in perfect pantomime, Lila raises one arm and then the other, giggles in delight, then ducks to Scooter's other side. She lifts his left arm, then he sweeps his right hand around to cup her face and turn it toward him, away from the mirror. This animation of the adolescent conflict of self-regard and the attraction to the other risks heaviness, but these movements are so deftly choreographed and poignantly performed that the audience members become mirrored adolescents themselves.
These two young actors are remarkable in their own right, but it is a happy coincidence of styles and skills that brings them together on this stage. Perry Tiberio's performance as Scooter is coiled with explosiveness and craves the cool, irresistible charm of Regina Myers's Lila. These are beautifully crafted teenagers; it's hard to believe these actors have only a few years' distance from the age they portray. It's also a testament to their creative maturity that they have understood those years so well, so soon.
In the world of True Genius, adults are feckless but powerful; their whims have devastating consequences. Nancy Evans's performance as Margaret nails the adolescent's vision of a mother: alternately commanding and cajoling. Ken Scudder does his best to account for the makeup of the weakest character, the therapist, by veering between a boot camp counselor and a needy failure. The effect is cartoonish, but it works here because what we come to understand by the end of the play is that we have been transported to Scooter's exaggerated adolescent world: we have come to inhabit his "memoir"—the notebook he carries throughout the play.
So, in the same way that we can appreciate the sweet, shambling appearances of the imaginary younger brother, we see the therapist as a pathetic drunk and the mother as the all-powerful holder of secrets and keys to our fate. But in this version of his own story, Scooter finally contrives to extract a new truth from his mother, one that somehow transforms her into a more docile figure who, at the conclusion, promises to "cook more and take better care of you and the house." The abruptly happy ending is justified if we attribute authorship to Scooter. If, however, we choose to address Holstein as the author, we might prefer a less tidy conclusion.
To return to the hammer: It is in Lila's bag and is never put to use, never explained. There it is, on the cover of the playbill, but, to my knowledge, it's never accounted for in the play's action. This, I believe, is as it should be. Who can explain all the hardware in anyone's psyche? Why try to force the delicate ferocity of family and romantic relationships into reductive clarity? I found myself wishing that the imaginary brother, who disappeared when Scooter and his mother had their breakthroughs, would pop back out again at the end, hammer in hand, to break another garden gnome. (You'll have to see this play!)