When was the last time you saw a contemporary teen dramedy that not only featured a pair of complex, non-stereotypical characters but added something to the genre and in its final moments left you breathless?
Lauren Gunderson’s I And You is that play, at once funny, captivating, and profoundly moving, a powerful piece of theater now getting its Los Angeles Premiere in a production highlighted by Jennifer Finch’s and Matthew Hancock’s star-making performances under Robin Larsen’s inspired direction.
Teen couples (or older ones for that matter) don’t meet much cuter than high schoolers Anthony and Caroline do when the former shows up uninvited in his classmate’s cluttered bedroom quoting Walt Whitman (“I and this mystery, here we stand!”) with an unfinished poster, a bag of curly fries, and a plate of Caroline’s mother’s cookies in hand, baked goods presented as proof that he has Mom’s permission to pop in for some urgent, last-minute schoolwork.
Their joint oral presentation on Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass is due tomorrow, Anthony explains, which is why he needs the more artistically gifted Caroline’s help in making the aforementioned poster look less pathetic than what he’s brought along.
If Caroline is less than welcoming, she has good reason to be. First of all, she doesn’t recall ever having seen Anthony before. Secondly, since she hasn’t been to school in ages, she has no idea they’ve even got a project due, and despite his insistence that he emailed her about the presentation, who checks their emails anymore? Thirdly, she’s never read Whitman, let alone Leaves Of Grass.
There is, at the very least, an explanation for some of the above, one suggested by the many pill bottles beside Caroline’s bed.
Well, perhaps not quite Love Story sick, but since the future doesn’t look all that bright for Caroline, the last thing she needs is a stranger interrupting her “me” time (which is about the only time she’s got these days, despite her insistence that because “I text, a lot,” she has a life.)
Prickly Caroline may be, but Anthony is not one to take no for an answer, and before long…
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that over the course of I And You’s ninety-minute running time, Caroline is likely to let down her guard and let the oh-so persistent, oh-so likeable Anthony in.
What even a rocket scientist may fail to guess is that playwright Gunderson has a good deal more in store for audiences in I And You than meets the eye. And trust me, if this were a movie rather than a play, you would not want the electricity to go out before the final minutes of the last reel.
I And You is that rarity among teen tales, one which celebrates the intelligence of its characters. Caroline may at first come down hard on poetry in general (and Leaves Of Grass in particular) because … well, because that’s how just about any contemporary seventeen-year-old might react to a Civil War-era poem that fills a 400-page volume all by itself.
Still, once Caroline has actually read the thing, or at least Anthony’s favorite passages, she not only understands why he loves it so much, she gets excited about their project, an examination of Whitman’s use of the pronouns “I” and “You” (hence the play’s title).
I And You celebrates not only smarts but diversity as well, and not just diversity in music. (Anthony loves John Coltrane, Caroline digs Jerry Lee Lewis and plays a mean air piano.)
Gunderson has written I And You with the proviso that Anthony and Caroline be played by actors of different races, something that gives added richness and new dimensions to what is already a most extraordinary teen love story. (Like previous productions, he is black and she is white at the Fountain.)
Still you can be excused for wondering throughout I And You’s first eighty-five minutes just what makes Gunderson’s latest so special that it merits a coveted slot at the Fountain, and you might well wonder too what attracted premier scenic designer Tom Buderwitz to do what just about anyone else could do—give us a messy teenager’s bedroom, clutter everywhere, walls covered with posters and snapshots, particularly since the lion’s share of this particular design’s execution falls on the more than capable shoulders of props/set dressing designer Dillon Nelson.
The answer to both questions is found in I And You’s unexpected last five minutes, which will have you gasping for breath at both Gunderson’s play and Buderwitz’s design, and keep you talking about this extraordinary piece of theater long, long after bows have been taken to audience tears and cheers.
Finch’s feisty Caroline may display plenty of teen girl bravado, but the actress digs deep into her character’s hopes and fears, and what a joy it is to see her falling under her costar’s spell, even as we find ourselves equally taken by the dynamic, charismatic Hancock’s hard-to-resist Anthony, who like Caroline is more than what originally meets the eye. Much more.
Caroline and Anthony may be taking American Lit together, but with Finch and Hancock playing them, there is Chemistry on the Fountain stage.
In addition to I And You’s outstanding scenic/properties design, the production is blessed with world-class lighting by designer extraordinaire Jeremy Pivnick and a pair of just-right costumes by Jocelyn Hublau Parker. As for John Zalewski’s sound, the master designer’s latest gives us Coltrane, Lewis, and a host of sounds you’d expect to hear from Caroline’s bedroom.
Josephine Austin is production stage manager. Scott Tuemey is technical director. I And You is produced by Stephen Sachs, Simon Levy, and Deborah Lawlor.
Even those who might not normally opt to spend an hour and a half with a pair of seventeen-year-olds are advised to put I And You at the top of their must-see list. I was so overwhelmed by its final minutes that I’m returning in a few weeks for the pure joy of re-experiencing them, along with the many delights that come before.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.
April 30, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger