Lauren Gunderson’s I and You is a gem of a play that is guaranteed to make you gasp at its surprising conclusion and leave the theater reveling in its lush language and the outstanding performances.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theater, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell MA, through November 1.
By Glenn Rifkin
It turns out that the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company are not the only local repertory stages premiering exciting new work heading eventually to New York. The Merrimack Repertory Theater is presenting Lauren Gunderson’s hilarious and powerful I and You, a gem of a play that is guaranteed to make you gasp at its surprising conclusion and leave the theater reveling in its lush language and the outstanding performances. In January, it will move to Off-Broadway in New York and undoubtedly spotlight the award-winning, 33-year-old Gunderson, a playwright, author, and screenwriter, as a voice to be reckoned with.
Directed by Sean Daniels, MRT’s new artistic director, and starring the excellent Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson, I and You is a fast-paced, frenetic dialogue between two teenagers who tango around each other’s passions, insecurities, and mortality while embracing the utter emotional power of poetry and language. Using Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “Leaves of Grass” as its connective tissue, Gunderson weaves a funny, poignant, and unexpected love story, replete with texting and tweeting and the music of Coltrane and Jerry Lee Lewis, to sound a “barbaric yawp” across these two vulnerable but witty young lives.
Ferguson is Caroline, a pale, pretty teenager with a failing liver who has retreated to the sanctuary of her poster-filled room. She is too ill to attend school but she gets her homework via emails from her teachers and waits, in a race against time, for a donor liver to arrive to save her life. White’s Anthony, a tall, African American basketball player, shows up in her room, unannounced and uninvited, bearing a school poetry project, due the next morning, and insists that Caroline has been designated as his partner for the effort. The pair have never met and Caroline is at first horrified that this stranger has entered her room. But she is more cranky than afraid and declares “I hate poetry” while sending torrents of cynical abuse his way.
“Why are you so impossible?” Anthony pleads in exasperation. “Because it makes a shitty life more acceptable,” Caroline barks back.
Anthony offers up a worn copy of Leaves of Grass, and he eventually cajoles her into becoming an accomplice. He reads from “Song of Myself,” the first poem in “Leaves of Grass,” and insists that Whitman was a “national badass,” an American treasure who understood viscerally the angst of love and pain and suffering. “He was writing during the Civil War, right, like bullets flying by your face,” Anthony tells Caroline. “He was in there with the wounded, the dying, he held their hands, and he still writes about beauty and life.”
The repartee between Caroline and Anthony is punctuated by the brilliant physicality of White’s humor. His elastic body crab-walks backward in horror from Caroline’s touch and he floats around the stage, hilariously choreographing his frustration, his passion for jazz, and his wide-eyed embrace of Whitman. “He’s a passionate guy,” Anthony tells Caroline about the poet. “Sometimes about America, and sometimes……dudes.”
As Caroline, Ferguson deftly avoids becoming a whining parody of the terminal teenager, due mostly to Gunderson’s skillful handling of the dialogue. Gunderson, an Atlanta native who teaches playwriting in San Francisco, has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU, and this play won the 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. In an interview, Gunderson explained her ability to capture the teenage voice without falling into a series of clichés.
“The language kind of just came out,” she said. “But one way I had to kind of massage the language was to make sure they didn’t know anything before they knew it. But once they do know something to be true, or have an opinion that occurs to them, they own it completely. That’s what I remember feeling as a teenager: at once totally unprepared for everything I encountered, and then at the same time, like I knew everything already.”
It is a rare comedy that can cross back and forth into moments of heart-felt anguish and tearful drama. I and You is 90 minutes (without an intermission) of mesmerizing emotion and, under Daniels’s skillful direction, the drama never drags or wavers. It weaves its way to a stunning conclusion (no spoilers here) that is at once surprising and powerful. If you ever needed a reason to visit downtown Lowell, the MRT provides it. The season opener, The Lion, played to rave reviews and I and You proves that this is the season to sample the MRT’s fare.
A segment from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.