Theater Review: “Chill” — Millennial Melodrama

Chill is a solid enough attempt to dramatize a millennial coming-of-age story, but it is reluctant to probe very deeply into the guts of the zeitgeist.

Chill by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through April 16.

Kim Fischer, Maria Jung, Monica Giordano, and Danny Bryck in the production of "Chill" at the Merrimack Repertory Theater.  Photo: Meghan Moore

Kim Fischer, Maria Jung, Monica Giordano, and Danny Bryck in the production of “Chill” at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Photo: Meghan Moore

By Erik Nikander

Millennials have the world’s attention, particularly in the press, where these mythical creatures are being scrutinized to death. “Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds?” wonders The Economist,  while Forbes promises to reveal why “Some Millennials Would Rather Clean A Toilet Than Understand Their Health Benefits.” “Martha Stewart Still Confused About What Millennials Are Exactly,” Vanity Fair helpfully reports. Fortunately, Eleanor Burgess is a millennial herself, so her new play Chill doesn’t feel so out-of-touch. That said, this millennial-centric story has plenty of other problems; the script boasts some compelling moments coming-of-age drama, but these bright spots are undercut by a fondness for social commentary that rarely probes very deep.

The entirety of Chill takes place over the course of two nights set apart by ten years: one in early 2001, the other just after Thanksgiving in 2011. On both nights, a group of high school friends, Jenn (Maria Jung), Ethan (Danny Bryck), Alli (Monica Giordano), and Stu (Kim Fischer), meet up in Jenn’s parents’ basement to hang out, drink beers, and chat about their lives. The play’s central plot device, while far from new, is effective at creating interest and suspense. Yes, it’s pretty clear that the characters’ extravagant dreams — Stu’s hope to play professional baseball and Alli’s ambition to become a jet-setting movie star, for instance — probably won’t come true. But it’s hard not to be curious about what routes their lives will take.

Unfortunately, wondering how things will turn out turns out to be the only  genuinely suspenseful element in Chill. Most of the time the play is stuffed full of talk about nothing in particular. Even worse, for the majority of the first act, in which the characters are high-school age, much of their squabbling comes across as obnoxious and unbelievable. In one episode, Ethan, Stu, and Alli decide to suggestively mash together Jenn’s old stuffed animals. In another, Alli assures Jenn that guys “think with their Johnsons,” using a term for the male genitals that has rarely if ever been said in earnest outside of The Big Lebowski, and certainly not by a high-school girl in 2001. In the second act, when the characters are in their late twenties, the dialogue sounds more true to life, but it remains bogged down in long tangents filled with uninteresting minutiae.

That isn’t to say that dramatic clarity is completely absent from the play. At one point during the high school scene, Ethan and Alli leave Stu and Jenn alone to talk. Stu tells Jenn about the different colleges he’s applied to; one is more prestigious, but the other might have a better program for this interests. He’s having a hard time choosing between the two. She consoles him, and reads him a Rilke passage on the excitement and wonder of unresolved questions. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian handles this exchange with subtlety and sensitivity; it’s one of the show’s highlights. This brief scene might have been the inspiration for an exceptional ten-minute play, but in Chill it only serves as a breather between endless bouts of prattle and bickering.

In the second act the script tries for seriousness again, and that doesn’t work as well, perhaps because of directorial clumsiness. Stu teases Ethan about his “self-indulgent” career in academia. Ethan, who studies the environment, suddenly bursts into a screaming harangue about global warming and the existential horror it portends for the human race. Ethan’s understandable anxieties struck the audience as laughable, even eliciting a handful of chuckles. Tonal whiplash may be the culprit; the play’s social commentary up to this point hasn’t been especially deep, mostly consisting of nods to cultural relics like Blockbuster Video and a discussion of whether or not it’s acceptable to use “gay” as an insult. This sharp turn into fiery political invective feels out of place, especially coming from Ethan, who is (intentionally or not, it was hard to tell) a largely insufferable character.

Despite the script’s limitations, the cast of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of Chill proves to be compelling. All four actors give energetic performances that make the evening’s lengthy stretches of chatter lively. Out of the group, Alli transforms the most between the two acts, and Monica Giordano crafts both iterations of her character with passion and conviction. Stu and Jenn are both afflicted with doubts about the future, and Kim Fischer and Maria Jung play off each other well to make those uncertainties hit home , especially in their terrific scene together in the first act. And while Ethan is often hard to like, that’s not the fault of Danny Bryck, who digs into the character and his anxieties with verve.

In addition, the technical aspects of the MRT production are spot-on. The basement set crafted by scenic designer Christina Todesco feels perfectly lived-in, decorated with aging furniture and piles of Jenn’s old toys. Miranda Giurelo’s costume design provides a subtle visual contrast between the two time periods; her clothes nimbly chart the growth of these characters. Wen-Ling Lao’s lighting work is a touch conventional, but the naturalistic result meshes well with the conversational quality of the script’s dialogue.

Chill is a solid enough attempt to dramatize a millennial coming-of-age story, but is reluctant to probe very deeply into the guts of the zeitgeist. If you’re interested in seeing an on-stage time capsule of life in the early 2000s, Chill may very well be just the show for you. But those looking for a meaningful exploration of Rilke’s ‘unresolved questions’ will be disappointed.

Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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