The local theater scene welcomes 2018 with a bang thanks to Playground Theatre’s outstanding local premiere of Erica Lipez’s 2013 off-Broadway dramedy The Tutors in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center.
Set in New York City circa 2007, the play revolves around the disillusioned lives of Joe, Toby and Heidi, friends and roommates whose dream of creating a Facebook-esque social networking site has sputtered. In order to pay the bills, they tutor wealthy prep school students. “Our time is coming,” Heidi states. “But the only thing coming is the rent.” Although their dream is built on connection, Lipez powerfully plants their relationship in various modes of disconnect. Heidi, suffering from mental illness, specifically agoraphobia, refuses to leave the apartment and imagines intimacy with an Asian student. Joe, a schemer responsible for naming the website joinme2u.com, seduces his students with drugs in the hope that their parents will become investors in the floundering site. Toby, the closeted and introverted tech expert, appears to be the most grounded but is still coming to terms with his identity and purpose. Disappointed and distressed, lonely and confused, the trio questions their future while craving connection.
Just when you think you have Lipez all figured out, she creates fascinating and thought-provoking detours. Along the way, the trio significantly damages each other while perceiving to cling to their ride or die friendships. But friendships change. Dreams change. One must be willing to navigate a new path sometimes and it’s perfectly fine to break free. They learn this the hard way even when discussions turn destructive and nasty. However, nothing in the play is more beautifully complicated than the final moments of Act 1, a sequence exquisitely directed with overlapping fluidity and sensitivity by Playhouse co-founders Christopher Hahn and Jenna Valyn. Hahn and Valyn’s incredibly intimate atmosphere is notably bolstered by a savvy soundtrack featured during scene changes and Derek Dunavent’s evocative lighting.
Inhabiting Lipez’s relevant world is a cast that ranks among the finest assembled so far this season. A.J. Breslin, meticulously composed and reserved in Playground’s production of Tape a few months ago, is in full attack mode here recalling his strong and defiant performance as Dennis in Playground’s This is Our Youth last season. Breslin doesn’t disguise Joe’s overbearingly snarky qualities, but he’s wise not to make him a complete jerk unworthy of redemption. The radiant Gomes effortlessly navigates Heidi’s whimsical journey with ample humor and drama, a skillful balancing act recalling the arc of the equally unstable Harper Pitt in Angels in America. Skyler McNeely, new to the Playground but recently seen alongside Breslin in Dare to Defy Productions’ presentation of Seussical, is remarkable in one of his best and most vulnerable performances. Conveying tenderness, concern, frustration, and hope sometimes within the same breath, McNeely, astutely accenting his expressive work with a tinge of mystery to keep the audience on its toes, is firmly grounded as the play’s appealing emotional center. Breakthrough performances are offered by Ryan Grissett as Joe and Toby’s privileged and disenchanted pupil Milo and Boyang Zhang who pulls double duty as the real and fictional embodiments of Kwan. Grissett, a recent graduate of Beavercreek High School, gleefully agitates Breslin and McNeely for much of the play but explodes with heartbreaking fury when Milo’s world is flipped upside down especially within his fractured home. Zhang, a Cincinnati-based actor, expertly differentiates cool suaveness and buttoned-up reticence in his dual roles.
Lipez knows of what she writes. She was once a tutor and actually wrote this play while in graduate school at New York University. She also served as producer and writer of such TV series as Lone Star, Suits and Bates Motel. Her captivating look at millennials embracing the digital age without any idea of how to truly connect face-to-face with attention and focus rises as both a cautionary tale and another splendid example of the Playground’s riveting artistry.
The Tutors continues through Jan. 7 in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes. Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $15-$20. For tickets, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com. Patrons are advised the show contains adult language and situations. For more information, visit theplaygroundtheatre.org. Also, you can follow Playground’s Spotify playlist at http://pgdyt.org/tutors-soundtrack. The indie/rock/folk artists featured include Vampire Weekend, Blitzen Trapper, Band of Horses, The Shins, and Arctic Monkeys.