The Chalk Boy
Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy now in production at UNDER St. Marks in the East Village, is billed as "a dark comedy about death, faith, paranoia, and teenage girls," a description that both underscores the play’s tone and its thematic ambitions. Set in a small American town named Clear Creek, the type of strip mall-infused locale where provincialism reigns supreme, "The Chalk Boy" unfolds as a series of flashbacks to the lives of four teenage girls and the tragedy that consumes their small community: the disappearance of Jeffrey Chalk, one of the most popular students from Clear Creek Community High School.
Two of the girls, Trisha Sorensen and Lauren Radley, members of their high school’s Christian Athletes Club and, therefore, of course, preternaturally spirited, serve as the play’s dubiously omniscient narrators, spewing catty observations about their town, Chalk’s apparent abduction and, especially, the lives of the play’s other two teenage girls, Penny Lauder, a sad soul with a tenuous emotional connection to Chalk, and Breanna Stark, a conflicted soul with a tenuous emotional connection to Penny.
"The Chalk Boy" benefits from a first-rate cast and crew that, given the play’s staging requirements and the theater’s space limitations, put forth a yeoman’s effort to ensure a successful production. In particular, Conkel owes Marguerite French (Trisha) and Mary Catherine Donnelly (Lauren) a debt of gratitude for an impressive display of nimble acting. In their roles as narrators, both women convincingly portray multiple characters, sometimes changing personas and costumes mid-scene. Although the play’s impact hinges mostly on their talents, Jennifer Harder as Penny, and Kate Huisentruit as Breanna, share several bittersweet scenes; their well-acted exchanges reveal the melancholy informing Conkel’s dark comedy. Harder is especially heartbreaking as the tormented Penny, a girl who finds hope only through her fantasies, which tragically seem even more pathetic than her real life. Though Breanna might be Penny’s salvation, the girl does not seem hardwired for happiness.
Like any good satirist, Conkel is adept at identifying social hypocrisy and ridiculing its practitioners. While the play’s setting -- a high school in small town America -- might seem like an easy target, and one too often exploited, the playwright offers enough thematic twists to save "The Chalk Boy" from accusations of unoriginality. Certainly, the contention that one’s high school years are usually a bleak period, even for those students who might appear outwardly to be enjoying adolescence, is not a startling observation, but Conkel sets his writing apart by delving into the nature of this bleakness.
Trisha, Lauren, Penny, and Breanna are each struggling towards adulthood, trying to figure out what to value and who to trust, all while hoping that there are essential meanings that will carry them through life. Trisha and Lauren have accepted those put forward by Christianity, while Penny and Breanna have become pentagram-drawing Wiccans. Both religions offer their adherents a sense of identity, but neither can explain war, poverty, natural disasters, or why someone would abduct a high school boy.
"The Chalk Boy" loses some momentum in its second act, largely because the author seems uncertain that the audience has understood his play’s more serious intentions; a few points are driven home too directly and redundantly. In this vein, Lauren brusquely becomes a mouthpiece for existential discontent, morphing from an Anita Bryant clone to a French café philosopher in a transition that rings false. Donnelly is up to the acting challenge, but, despite her admirable effort, the narrative groundwork for this radical change is missing.
These criticisms aside "The Chalk Boy" is a resonating achievement; Joshua Conkel merits praise both as playwright and director. His briskly paced and inventive staging serves the material well, compensating for a theater space that is undeniably charming, but also undeniably cramped, even by off-Broadway standards.
Initially, "The Chalk Boy" seems like an undemanding piece of theater; a witty but shallow tale of how the popular girls’ charmed lives compare to the daily indignities endured by the geeky Wiccans. As the play develops, however, it becomes clear that Conkel has managed instead to create a razor-sharp satire, a work whose caustic observations will linger long after the actors take their bows.
"The Chalk Boy" continues its run through Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, at UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place. For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.horseTRADE.info.