Structure Troubles Dog Play

steve_steven.jpgThe audience never sees the title character in Ann-Marie Healy’s new play Have You Seen Steve Steven?, the character being a long-forgotten imaginary dog “owned” by two teenagers when they were little. But the long-disappeared phantasm of the dog turns out to be a central character, even the key character, in this darkly funny and thoughtful play, which features several excellent bits of acting, though the ending is a little too strange in the end for its own good. Resurrected by two people who seem almost as imaginary as he does, Steve Steven shatters the complacent Midwestern world of the teens’ two families, bringing the divisions already present into high relief.

There’s little sign, in the amusing introduction to the first family’s insular middle-class life, of the unsettling, almost shocking, way things are going to go. Kathleen (Stephanie Wright Thompson), a pretty but insecure, awkward, lonely young woman, lounges on the couch as her sweet, goofy parents bustle around to get the place ready for a visit from some old friends they haven’t seen in years. Kathleen barely remembers the other family, but her mother reminds her that she and the couple’s son “were babies together,” and the flurry of excitement at the idea of a boy coming over gets the better of Kathleen’s doubts just as her mother hoped it would. Healy shows the parents (brought convincingly to life by Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrell) to be just as desperate for peer acceptance as Kathleen as they clean up the apartment, trying to hide stains and looking for a bottle of Shiraz to pour so that they will seem more cultured. But after this gently comical opening, it quickly becomes clear that they’ll have more to worry about than the bean dip spill still showing on the sofa. Have You Seen Steve Steven? is not about friends coming over for dinner.

This begins to become clear when, after Kathleen finishes putting on her makeup, a man named Hank Mountain (Matthew Maher) comes to the door. Maher projects an otherworldly simplicity that just barely masks an underlying menace; Mountain, a newcomer to the area, insists that he talked with Kathleen and her parents that very morning, but none remembers him, and despite his apparently friendly chatter, after he leaves an unspecified sense of dread remains in the air. It puts Kathleen on edge for when the real guests arrive, the old family friends mirroring her own family in the parents’ clueless superficiality and the son’s embarrassment and awkward sullenness. Accompanying them is Anlor (Jocelyn Kuritsky), a refugee (from some war-torn place, perhaps the Balkans) about whom no one seems to know much, caught up as they are in their own little concerns. The part is fairly superfluous, except for what she brings out in the others, and as another alarm bell for the audience to indicate that worse is to come.

But if Healy had some kind of truly strange and terrifying ending in mind, as the company’s brief synopsis would suggest, she takes far too long building up to it, so that the viewer comes to another interpretation and sees the play primarily as an evocation of the gap between two generations and, less prosaically, of the loss of community and the resulting anomie in American life – the toll that people’s increasingly insular habits has on their ability to deal with each other or with anything out of the ordinary. Though the adults are fun to watch, these themes are brought out most in the teens and their initial discomfort around each other, and what they gradually remember of the time when they were little and fearless and unabashed, a time encapsulated by their shared love for the imaginary dog. When Hank Mountain returns, inviting himself and an elderly woman from the neighborhood in for a drink, Healy seems to want to push the play past these conceptual outlines and into someplace altogether uncertain, though still involving the dog, but she leaves so little time for this, when so much has already been developed, that the ending of this 70-minute play seems out of place and inconclusive. If she had stuck with a focus on the less sensational, more concrete idea of generational and social malaise and the friction it generates, the play would have felt more satisfyingly whole.

Wayward ending notwithstanding, Have You Seen Steve Steven? is worth seeing for the vivid world the actors create through their characters (aided by Sue Rees’s attention to detail in the excellent set). A few times one worries that they will fall, or already have, into cartoony stereotypes of these Midwestern folks, but the actors come off as so genuineness and earnestness are reassuring. And in making the audience sympathize with the characters, Healy implicates them in the anomie that is at the play’s heart, so that by the end they may feel nearly as uncomfortable as those they have been watching, and the questions they take away as a result should keep them thinking about the play for awhile. – Mallory Jensen

Have You Seen Steve Steven? is the sixth production in this year’s series by 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.), an OBIE Award-winning theater company comprised of 13 playwrights. Directed by Anne Kauffman, it plays at the East 14th Street Theater through Oct. 6. 344 East 14th St., NY, NY

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.