‘How a Boy Falls’ a slick but ultimately unsatisfying thriller
Despite Steven Dietz’s crafty and ultra-twisty storytelling and the worthy efforts of the actors involved, what we get never becomes a drippingly atmospheric tale of suspenseful truth-seeking and entertaining unlayering.
At the start of “How a Boy Falls,” the new suspense thriller by Steven Dietz receiving its world premiere at Northlight Theatre, two guys at a pick-up bar — strike that, a coffee shop apparently — strike up a conversation. Before long, the more confident guy convinces the other — why, we fairly wonder — to introduce himself to a woman apparently in the middle of being stood up, where he pretends to be the man the woman has been waiting for. It turns out, she’s been waiting for a hit man. He plays along.
When: Through Feb. 29
Where: 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $30 - $89
Run time: 1 hour and 10 minutes, with no intermission
Hidden motives, dark and unclear histories, the manipulators possibly being manipulated. It feels so fraught at first. No wonder director Halena Keys introduces the play and infuses the interstices between its non-chronological scenes with the surf music soundtrack of “Pulp Fiction.”
But, despite Dietz’s crafty and ultra-twisty storytelling and the worthy efforts of the actors involved, what we get never becomes a drippingly atmospheric tale of suspenseful truth-seeking and entertaining unlayering. With characters whose histories never really do become both clear and convincing, who never emerge from feeling like manipulated pieces in a playwright’s puzzle, we end up with a shiveringly chilly work that feels slick but not fully involving.
That woman in the coffee shop is named Chelle, and she’s played by Cassidy Slaughter-Mason with the right amount of not-so-innocent innocence. Yes, she’s seeking a hit man, but somehow it feels justified from the start. And somehow itinerant caterer Sam (Sean Parris), the coffee-shop guy suddenly helping her, senses that and keeps going even when Mitch (Travis A. Knight), the sweatpants-clad security guy who put him up to it, suggests he walk away (but of course doesn’t mean it).
The tale starts coming together quite rapidly in a play that does feel complete at under 75 minutes. Chelle becomes an au pair for an uber-wealthy couple with a young boy. The father Paul (Tim Decker) quotes Camus and relishes the balcony of his cliff-set home with a killer view (sorry!). The mother Miranda (Michelle Duffy) sees nothing but danger for her child in that steep drop, no matter how up-to-code it may be. And, sure enough, the mystery at the heart of “How a Boy Falls” is exactly what happened to the boy when he decided to try hiding and seeking on that balcony.
There is a lot I found puzzling about this piece beyond the puzzle of the plot, which to be honest was pretty easy to get ahead of. For example, why is it that characters can know so much and so little about the people they seem to study? Was this supposed to be an existentialist Camus-like metaphor, or just shoddy research?
Why, exactly, does this thriller feel like it becomes less and less suspenseful as it goes on? The stakes involved seem to plummet mid-way through but the characters don’t walk away because… they just don’t.
And why does it feel so odd to match the pulp-ish soundtrack from sound designer Rick Sims with the minimalist but emotionally removed set by Lizzie Bracken? Perhaps it’s because pulp storytelling is anything but minimalist, while this play is all about sparseness, dishing out information extremely carefully, but with that new information filling in holes while never managing to provide a dramatic punch.
And, finally, why is it so easy to tell who is basically good or bad in this play, irrespective of their role in the mystery itself? This play keeps you off-guard for a bit, but at a certain point you realize that the characters aren’t any deeper than they appear. For a play that provides a whole lot of twists, there really isn’t much mystery beyond the central plot point. In a play where nobody can be trusted, you can trust your judgment. What you see is what you get.
Steven Oxman is a freelance writer.