Friday, March 27, 2009

The Secret Agenda of Trees


By Colin McKenna. Directed by Michael Kimmel. At the Wild Project. (CLOSED)

Colin McKenna's downbeat look at dead-end red-state lives gets a few nods for relevance and detail, but many critics find the play--and Michael Kimmel's production--to be a less-than-involving grab bag of Jerry Springer tropes and precious poeticism (what is it with playwrights imputing metaphorical arboreal anthropomorphism to confused youngsters?). Critics are divided on whether the performances Kimmel gets from his actors are rivetingly gritty or muddled and unmodulated.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) Sadly, there's no better time for "The Secret Agenda of Trees," Colin McKenna's tense drama of modern rural poverty and American discontent. The piece has only a vague sense of place (its setting is "a rural community in the U.S.") and its structure could use some vigorous polishing, but McKenna's enthusiasm for life-and-death conflict over politicking or preening pays off in spades. Fluidly staged by Michael Kimmel, the play displays a knack for the theatrical eagerly exploited by its three excellent leads...For all its faults, though, there's an urgency about this play that seems to come from outside New York, and that's a valuable thing...These people are recognizable not from sitcoms or movies, but from life.

That Sounds Cool B
(Aaron Riccio) So far as realism goes, Michael Kimmel's direction nails it...By maximizing the squalor--right down to references to "Lucky Charms breath"--he strikes the right balance for the giddying moments of escapism when Maggie and Jack light up and let loose...However, the rest of the play falters, both in acting and writing. Veronica's dreams of her brother, Dixon, are forced attempts at conflict, and McKenna's justification for them--adding additional fantasy monologues--is unnecessary. Thankfully, de Courcy acts the hell out of them...The Secret Agenda of Trees doesn't really branch far beyond its central three characters. Moreover, by putting down such deep roots for those three, it makes that clawing at the sky all the more heartbreaking. And that's worth putting on the agenda.

CurtainUp B
(Dierdre Donovan) A probing exploration of drug dependency peppered with poetically-charged monologues. It is a funny, sometimes sad evening at the theater. With its gritty mixture of human cupidity and turpitude, it is the kind of work that brings to mind Sam Shepard, but it creates an incontrovertible atmosphere of its own...There's not a healthy character or relationship in the entire story...It is amazing to see how good actors can take unsympathetic characters and engage you in the details of their lives...Michael Kimmel has directed adroitly and energetically.

Backstage B-
(Mark Peikert) What elevates this sordid Southern melodrama about a hard drinking mother on meth, her junkie lover, and her wise 14-year-old daughter above the standard of Lifetime TV movie fare is the wealth of detail with which playwright Colin McKenna has lovingly filigreed his text. Unfortunately, the details don't add up to an arresting whole...Though Veronica seems remarkably mature for her age, McKenna negates her spiky intelligence -- particular to an adolescent growing up in the South—by forcing her into stale melodramatic situations about a soldier brother and an immature mother...Directed by Michael Kimmel to deliver her lines with all the teenage hothouse passion she can muster, De Courcy's Veronica turns from a small-town eccentric into the sort of 14-year-old who found her bible with The Bell Jar. Such people might be fun to write, but they're far too self-absorbed and willfully contrary to be sympathetic.

The New York Times C+
(Anita Gates) The dramatis personae of Colin McKenna’s meaningful two-act drama “The Secret Agenda of Trees” might feel at home on one of those talk shows in which the host encourages guests to scream bleep-worthy accusations. Mr. McKenna looks at these people more sympathetically, but in the tepid production at the Wild Project, directed by Michael Kimmel, their pain is hard to buy. The story itself is skillfully plotted, with a brutal final twist. But the overwhelming theme of these people’s lives is hopelessness, with a resulting psychological idleness, and never for a minute did I believe that Michael Tisdale, as Jack, the drifter, really belonged there. C
(Robin Reed) Playwright Colin McKenna has hung his play...upon three very broken characters, only one of whom, the precocious Veronica, has any hope of becoming a whole person as she has not yet succumbed to the utter hopelessness of her environment...Though McKenna has found some beauty in Veronica's teen angst, infusing her language with poetry and a flair for the performative, this play could stand to rethink or just lose a number of elements...As Maggie and Jack, Lillian Wright and Michael Tisdale are acting their hearts out, but are not rough enough around the edges for their roles...It is only Reyna de Courcy who flies anywhere near believable as Veronica. She taps directly into the meat of the role, finding the balance where the fading precociousness of an early teen meets the exploding adult thoughts and feelings, neither of which she is yet equipped to deal.

Village Voice D-
(Alexis Soloski) Rather ridiculous...McKenna crams the script with far too many plot elements, among them overdose, violent detox, frequent threats of violence, and an Iraq War death. He sometimes offers a touch of a poet, but too often relies on what sounds like a parody of redneck speech (Veronica's opening line: "Heard a ruckus, thought it was them varmints again"). Despite Michael Kimmel's capable production, I wouldn't mind terribly if Trees were logged.

Theatermania F
(Andy Propst) Feeling too often like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, Colin McKenna's melodramatic The Secret Agenda of Trees, now at the Wild Project, takes audiences into rural America, where hope and opportunity are in short supply. Theoretically, it's a play that should open New York theatergoers' eyes to the concerns of the working class poor in the hinterlands, but instead, it makes one long to close them...Like the trees of the play's title -- which have an agenda of reaching the sky -- it's clear that all of these characters are trying to find some way of escaping their existence. Yet, while it's difficult watching these people make the choices that they do, the play never effectively tugs at the heartstrings. In part, this is the result of the shrill and often shallow performances that director Michael Kimmel has elicited from his cast.

Variety B+ 11; That Sounds Cool B 10; CurtainUp B 10; Backstage B- 9; The New York Times C+ 8; C 8; Village Voice D- 3; Theatermania F 1; 60/8=7.5 (C+/C)

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