There are a lot of cool, perhaps too-cool elements in Northlight’s world-premiere production of “How a Boy Falls,” a thriller written by noted playwright Steven Dietz and directed by Halena Kays. There’s the self-consciously Hitchcockian storyline about a young child’s mysterious disappearance, complete with a killer-app McGuffin; the Camus-influenced dialogue, spare and oblique; and the David Hockney-inspired aesthetics of the set, a study in pristine West Coast modernism. It’s a play that feels dressed to impress, with its stylized writing, acting and design, all done with admirable skill and a slick professionalism. Underneath the well-wrought exterior of this gratuitously convoluted neo-noir drama, though, is a conspicuous absence of heart, soul and meaning.
Told in a disorienting series of nonsequential episodes, the five-character drama introduces Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), who signs on as nanny to a wealthy family whose Architectural Digest-worthy home perches on a cliff. There are signs of conflict and low-level creepiness from the get-go, but Chelle—who, like everyone else on stage, is not quite as she appears—needs the job and likes the feeling of security afforded by the family’s gated seaside aerie. At first, things go well between Chelle, husband Paul (Tim Decker), wife Miranda (Michelle Duffy) and their unseen son. Then the boy goes missing and is presumed to have fallen from the home’s balcony into the ocean far below. As his caretaker, Chelle takes the blame.
She responds in a way that makes no sense at all, seeking out a hit man to rub out Paul, for inner reasons that never quite clarify. The “assassin”—actually a benign catering assistant and journalism-school dropout named Sam (Sean Parris)—is the play’s most sympathetic character, or at least the only one with a hint of humor. Egged on by the shady Mitch (Travis A. Knight), a sort of one-man NSA, the love-smitten Sam takes on the role of hired killer in order to pursue the beguiling if homicidal Chelle.
Paul is in the “data removal business,” and the play is all about the very American enterprise of remaking oneself to escape a past that often seems, as Paul puts it, “weaponized.” But the script also escapes the demands of logic, coherence and plausibility. Every character is in perpetual surveillance of every other, creating a sense of mounting paranoia that leaves no room to breathe. Under Kays’ direction, the acting tends toward the mannered and remote, especially in the case of the stricken parents. With the sole exception of Parris as amateur sleuth Sam, the actors seem to be wearing masks that never come off. Combined with the conspicuous color-coding of Lizzie Bracken’s elegant if overdone set, Izumi Inaba’s costumes and Jason Lynch’s lighting, with their splashes of primary hues against the snow-white stage, the production itself begins to feel like a gated mansion, self-enclosed and without an ounce of real-world grit.
Despite the contrivance, the play keeps our attention for most of its seventy-five-minute length, thanks to Kay’s swift scene-to-scene movement and Rick Sims’ subtly spine-tingling musical score. But the whole fragile structure comes tumbling down at the end. The work closes on a note of baffling anticlimax, leaving behind a wreckage of logic, motivation and poetic justice, as duplicity is rewarded and sincerity and loyalty are not.
The play asks the timely and relevant question, in this age of intrusive cyber-tracking and vanishing privacy, of whether we are more than the sum of our data. In a program note, Dietz observes that “every play is a mystery,” a search for the deeper truth beneath the surface details. Unfortunately, this work never penetrates into the core of its characters, treating them more like plot-driven chess pieces than dimensional human beings. For all of its brevity and effortfully sustained tension, “How a Boy Falls” is ultimately a dull experience, one that ends with a thud. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, (847)673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89. Through February 29.