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Opinion Review: 'This flat earth' traces childhood fears no parent can allay

The time, it seems, has finally arrived for a certain father-daughter talk, the kind of conversation that parents dread. But for Dan, a single dad, and Julie, a very unworldly 13-year-old...

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Lucas Papaelias and Ella Kennedy in "This Flat Earth" at Playwrights Horizons in New York, March 15, 2018. The drama, that centers on a 13-year-old survivor of a school shooting, is from the prolific Lindsey Ferrentino, who has already established herself as a dramatist willing to wrestle with overpowering contemporary subjects. play

Lucas Papaelias and Ella Kennedy in "This Flat Earth" at Playwrights Horizons in New York, March 15, 2018. The drama, that centers on a 13-year-old survivor of a school shooting, is from the prolific Lindsey Ferrentino, who has already established herself as a dramatist willing to wrestle with overpowering contemporary subjects.

(Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

It’s not the mysteries of sex that are on Julie’s mind. What this particular teenager is demanding is that her father explain why school shootings happen and why grown-ups can’t do anything about them.

Julie, it turns out, is a recent survivor of such a tragedy, and she has just learned, by sneaking a peek at a forbidden newspaper, that what happened in her school is not an uncommon event. “Dad, has this happened before?” she asks, the alarm rising in her voice. “How many times?”

Portrayed by young actress Ella Kennedy Davis, Julie is the troubled and troubling center of “This Flat Earth,” Lindsey Ferrentino’s very sincere and equally ungainly new drama. There is no denying the urgency of this work, which opened Monday night at Playwrights Horizons, less than two months after the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It seems unlikely that any student of Julie’s age would be as naive as she appears to be. Yet something like the hour of reckoning portrayed in this 90-minute, five-character play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, is surely happening every day, all over the world.

More than ever, coming of age these days means coming to terms with the possibility that sudden, irrational violence may disrupt and extinguish lives that are just beginning. The typical worries of entering adolescence have, it seems, acquired newly terrifying mortal shadows.

Born in the late 1980s, the prolific Ferrentino has already established herself as a dramatist willing to wrestle with overpowering contemporary subjects. Her “Ugly Lies the Bone” (2015) dealt with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on a young American veteran and her family, and this season’s “Amy and the Orphans” considers the irreparable effects of the parental abandonment of children with Down syndrome.

“This Flat Earth” may be her most daring venture to date. For Ferrentino winds up venturing far beyond the precincts of everyday naturalism in which her latest play initially seems to be operating.

She is bravely attempting to contextualize 21st-century horrors within the sort of existential framework in which Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee specialized. By the end of “This Flat Earth,” Julie comes to seem like a latter-day variation on Emily, the heroine of Wilder’s “Our Town,” who is vouchsafed a glimpse of small human lives within a cosmic framework.

Unfortunately, before we arrive at this moment of out-of-time revelation, we are stuck in a long and unconvincing slice of life. The ambitious, potentially heart-stirring elements are all in place here. Yet they have been assembled with a disjointedness that taxes our belief. And the performances, perhaps inevitably, lack emotional continuity.

Set in a shabby apartment building in a New England town (Dane Laffrey did the impressive two-story set), “This Flat Earth” begins resonantly in the dead of night, when Julie wakens to cry out, “Are you there?” Her father, Dan (Lucas Papaelias), who works for the local water company, comes in to reassure her that there is nothing to fear in the sounds she hears — the wind, the rain, the traffic and, most ominously to Julie’s ear, a recording of a Bach cello concerto being played upstairs.

It gradually emerges that on that very day Julie has attended the reopening ceremony of her public school, where a shooting occurred not long before. (The time frame is kept vague, as are the details of the killing.)

The one student who died whom Julie knew was Noelle, a rich girl who played the cello. Julie didn’t particularly like Noelle, which makes dealing with what happened all the more complicated.

Noelle’s grief-addled mother, Lisa (Cassie Beck), shows up at Julie’s apartment, after Dan agrees to hold on to some boxes belonging to the dead girl. And Julie, it emerges, had earlier bought Noelle’s designer discards at a Goodwill store.

While Julie and her friend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain) hide out in her room, watching horror movies on his laptop and innocently flirting, all escapism is only provisional. It doesn’t help that Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), the old woman who lives upstairs, keeps playing that cello record. (The music is performed live by cellist Christine H. Kim.) Or that, for reasons that have nothing to with the recent tragedy, Julie may soon have to leave her school.

The assorted plot elements and themes, which include social and economic resentment, are presented spasmodically. And while it may be Ferrentino’s point that people behave atypically in extreme situations, the disjointed and inconsistent behavior of most of the characters keeps you at a perplexed distance.

For starters, could any 13-year-old of reasonable intelligence be as out of touch with the world as Julie is? Would she and the savvier Zander really engineer such a strained and hokey scheme to help Julie stay in school? Would the upper-middle-class Lisa, even in her distress, look to the blue-collar Dan for support as she does?

Perhaps less-wholesale realism might reconcile some of the play’s more far-fetched contrivances. Taichman, who won a Tony last year for her inventive direction of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” hasn’t found a tone that would smooth over the ostensible disparities here.

That’s a shame, because Ferrentino is dealing with profound and essential subjects. That includes how we incorporate the monumental and horrific into the steadily flowing banalities and necessities of daily life.

For parents, the most affecting issue may be how adults can never entirely comfort children as they begin to realize that many of life’s scariest problems are neither avoidable or fixable. And that when a little girl cries out “Are you there?” in the night, there won’t always be someone to answer.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BEN BRANTLEY © 2018 The New York Times

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