Salt Lake City’s Pygmalion Theatre Company is continuing its season with “I and You.” Written by Lauren Gunderson, the play examines the power of art and literature through the eyes of two sensitive teenagers.
After yet another day of aimlessly scrolling through social media, Caroline is lonely, miserable and worst of all, bored. Homebound due to a painful life-threatening illness, she is unable to do much, and her only regular visitor is her anxious, doting mother. Her routine is unexpectedly interrupted by Anthony, a fellow student who comes begging for help on an English project based on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” At first, Caroline views Anthony with hostility and suspicion, but as the night wears on, the two discover a strange connection to Whitman’s work — and to each other. Soon this encounter leads the pair to discuss their deepest fears and desires as well as acknowledge the larger existential questions they are unable to answer.
Like Whitman’s poetry, the script is openhearted and prone to asking big questions about life and death. Unlike Whitman’s poetry, the script often handles these qualities awkwardly and without subtlety. When Gunderson tries to draw connections between “Song of Myself” and the characters’ lives, she loses the naturalism that makes other scenes engaging. Some of the play’s weakest moments are when Anthony argues that his English homework is “like actually totally awesome.” I don’t doubt that some teenagers are passionate about Walt Whitman, but I do doubt that these teenagers would express their passion like overeager librarians with a knack for literary analysis.
“I and You” is boldly minimalistic: it is set in one room and told over the course of a single night with just two characters on stage. This sets up a challenge for the performers, because the show fully depends on their work. Luckily, Tristan Johnson (playing Anthony) and Cora Fossen (playing Caroline) are consistently compelling. Though some moments of the script are unconvincing, they still manage to present sympathetic and interesting portraits. At first, their performances are deceptively one-note with his centered on “nice guy” generosity and hers on unchecked aggression, but in the hands of Johnson and Fossen, the characters evolve convincingly. Fossen’s performance is sneakily complex, tempering possible clichés of teenage angst with the knowledge that bitterness is often a mask for fear and pain. Johnson, meanwhile, uses unabashed earnestness to his advantage. His vulnerability becomes an unexpected charisma.
Director Teresa Sanderson should be credited for drawing out these performances, and for her refreshing emphasis on quiet moments. She manipulates the contrasts between Caroline’s prickliness and Anthony’s warmth, but never pushes too hard. This results in a host of inherent comedic and dramatic possibilities. Many of the show’s best punchlines land because they are underplayed — you can imagine real people making these jokes.
Without giving too much away, I will say that the ending left a sour taste in my mouth. Gunderson capped off the story with a clumsily executed twist ending that felt unearned and unnecessary. It is almost as if she did not trust the audience to be satisfied by a simple character-driven narrative, and the final scene disrupts the delicacy that made the play’s best moments appealing. It’s a shame because much of “I and You” is a gentle, thoughtful character study. It may even make you nostalgic for making tri-folds about nineteenth-century literature.
“I and You” will be performed from February 2-17 at 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2:00 p.m. on weekends. Performances are at the Rose Wagner Performance Arts Center. “I and You” is a production of Pygmalion Theatre Company. To purchase tickets, visit pygmalionproductions.org.