The Chalk Boy
Warehouse – Beyond
Thursday, July 17, 6:30pm
Friday, July 18, 9:00pm
Saturday, July 19, 9:00pm
Sunday, July 20, Noon
They say: “Beneath its boring facade a Northwest town hides a nasty secret, and the girls from local high school’s Christian Athletes Club are here to tell you about it. Murder, the occult, algebra – this is a deathly black comedy that punches as hard as your high school bully.”
Glen’s take: The above blurb — and the opening four minutes or so — would seem to augur a campy, over-the-top sendup of high school malaise, but Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy has got more River’s Edge than Heathers in its dramaturgical DNA.And, much as I love me some “School’s-cancelled-today-because-Kurt-and-Ram-killed-themselves-in-a-repressed-homosexual-suicide-pact!” goodness, Conkel’s choice to ground his tale in a grubbier, less outsized reality makes for an admirably layered, thoughtful and slyly funny evening.
As you watch, you get the distinct sense that a different company could take the same script and have a sillier, campier time with it. Conkel’s play is built on the shifting alliances of four high school girls, and it wouldn’t take much to reduce them to types — Bitch, Witch, Jesusfreak, Dyke-in-Training — that would make for fish-in-a-barrel comic fodder. Certainly there are jokey elements (Wiccan ceremonies performed with cake servers and battery-operated candles) aplenty. And who knows: Wednesday night’s premiere was sparsely attended, and I suppose it’s possible that, given a larger crowd and bigger response, the actors might feel compelled to push their performances bigger. But I don’t think so. And I certainly hope not.
At the heart of The Chalk Boy is Jennifer Harder’s Penny, a prematurely weathered young woman who convinces herself she’s in love with a boy who’s gone missing. By imbuing Penny with a soft edge of world-weariness — she’s not so much alienated as she is disappointed — Harder helps keep the production rooted in the specfic; the other actors seem to key off her efforts. Kate Huisentruit is possessed of a killer deadpan, Mary Catherine Donnelly brings something small and true to each of the several roles she assumes, and Marguerite French is careful to supply her angry bitch Trisha with humanizing self-awareness.
Not every element emerges clearly; the sense of foreboding Conkel attempts to create — he wants you to feel the threat hanging over his characters, to sense the Something that waits for them in the darkness at the edge of town. It’s not there yet, but could be, with a bit of massaging. And I can’t shake the impression that Conkel doesn’t really stick the dismount — his ending is more of a stopping — but those are quibbles.
See it if: Um… you have a pulse? Look, I got nothing: Just see it, is all.
Skip it if: You were totally on your high school’s Spirit Week Committee, and Crazy Hat Day? Your idea.