The distressing downward spiral of Second Stage’s play selection continues with Anna Kerrigan’s The Talls (McGinn-Cazale Theatre). The company’s artistic goal here seems to involve renovating, or maybe just recycling, antique modes of TV sitcom. The Talls bears indications that its author, Anna Kerrigan, was aiming variously for a serious personal play, a somber satirical comedy, or at points an absurdist satire on aspects of American family life. None of these, however, lasts longer than a momentary flicker. Kerrigan’s touch is so uncertain, her sense of focus so jittery, that the 80-minute evening’s primary source of suspense lies in trying to figure out her overall intent—a secondary one being why Second Stage would choose to expend a full production on this obviously unready script.
Kerrigan is young and clearly talented; the company’s New Plays Uptown series is meant to support young writers. But The Talls leaves you feeling that, for some works, the test of exposure to a paying audience and published reviews is simply unfair. New plays staged in New York often seem, as the phrase goes, “developed to death”; this one, in contrast, seems the opposite.
The title’s “talls” are a Catholic family named Clarke, in mid-1970s Oakland, California. Their height affects the play only in that Mr. Clarke (Peter Rini), who’s running for municipal office, has a very short campaign manager, Russell James (Gerard Canonico), on whom the candidate’s puzzlingly eager for his family to make a good impression. His unhappy wife (Christa Scott-Reed), preoccupied with her offstage best friend, a local nun who may or may not be a lesbian, couldn’t care less about his political ambitions. Nor could his three younger kids, the sibling-rival teen athletes Christian (Michael Oberholtzer) and Catherine (Lauren Holmes), and the sexually curious preteen Nicholas (Timothée Chalamet).
And none of the family’s various preoccupations seems to interest intelligent, intense Isabelle (a sweet performance by Shannon Esper). A classic loner obliged to play surrogate mom to this sub–Norman Lear crew, Isabelle struggles to cope with her imminent departure for college, her fears of romantic rejection, and the chronic shyness that makes her not want to give the valedictory address at graduation. The handy coincidence of an offstage accident occurring in tandem with Russell’s arrival tidily solves Isabelle’s problems, though not the larger one of why anybody might want to watch these vaguely defined people blundering through these arbitrary events. Carolyn Cantor directed, efficiently but unassertively; maybe the choice of play puzzled her too.