Theater

High School Suicide Sings Its Virtual Heart Out in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

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Suicide rates have surged in recent years, rising sharply in almost every age, gender, and ethnic category. Among the young — those aged 15 to 34 — suicide is the second most frequent cause of death. One in every twelve high school students has attempted it; nearly one in every six has seriously contemplated it.

The last thing you might expect such grim statistics to inspire is a new musical, but Dear Evan Hansen, now running at Second Stage, isn’t a usual or even a predictable musical — which is a relief, given the recent clutch of Broadway shows (Waitress, Bright Star) whose “surprise” plot twists are visible miles off. Dear Evan Hansen‘s title refers not only to its hero, a gifted yet socially maladjusted and depressed high-schooler (Ben Platt), but also to a letter that he’s written to himself, a task assigned by his therapist as the start of a daily series.

But the letter goes astray when printed out, winding up in the pocket of an even more deeply troubled classmate, Connor (Mike Faist). It’s found there by Connor’s parents when — apologies for the spoiler — Connor, shockingly, takes his own life. Thinking it a farewell message from their son, they assume that Evan was the paranoiacally suspicious, isolated boy’s only friend.

Not wanting to confess the disillusioning truth, Evan finds himself living an increasingly elaborate lie, using his literary gifts to fabricate backdated emails between himself and Connor and befriending Connor’s screwed-up, wealthy parents (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson) and sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss), for whom he’s been pining. Unwittingly, he also becomes a social-media hero when his made-up correspondence with Connor, posted online, goes viral. Keeping the whole mess from his overworked, single-parenting mom (Rachel Bay Jones) requires still more fabricating.

The crash comes when Evan’s fictionalizing is found out — one of the show’s few shortcomings is that it goes light on the probable consequences of his exposure — but the authors make the run-up to that painful moment a beautifully sustained set of twists and turns predicated on the sympathetically drawn, complex characters. It’s a compliment to the show’s subtlety and knowingness that it might make you think not merely of troubled teens, but also of the haplessly fabricating heroes of earlier sardonic forays into American myth-making, from the pseudo-soldier played by Eddie Bracken in filmmaker Preston Sturges’s masterpiece, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), to the rootless young man in Henry James’s creepy short story Maud-Evelyn (1899), who convinces himself that he’s the heartbroken lover of a girl he never met, who died young and whose bereaved parents find his presence consoling.

Whether or not Dear Evan Hansen‘s creators had these arcane predecessor works consciously in mind, it’s impressive just how much its nuanced approach evokes them; precious few musicals, especially these days, can summon the spirit of Henry James. (As for Sturges, some Broadwayites actually attempted to musicalize Hail the Conquering Hero in 1961, producing one of the era’s more memorable disasters: It closed in a week.)

Like the heroes of those earlier works, Evan Hansen evolves his lie more to help others than out of self-aggrandizement — and finds himself half-believing it because he sees its positive effect on them. Steven Levenson’s script cannily displays both Evan’s increasing self-confidence as the fibs flow ever more freely and his parallel increase in suppressed guilt. The sharply written, expressive songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are astutely placed, balancing Evan’s emotional shifts against the other characters’ perspectives.

The production’s visual framework also enhances connectivity: On the multiple video screens that loom over David Korins’s intentionally could-be-anywhere set, Peter Nigrini’s projections create a kinetic world of social-media images. Starting slow and selective, his design accelerates terrifyingly as Evan’s lies proliferate then unravel. (Nevin Steinberg’s multilayered sound design makes a major contribution here as well.)

Unquestionably, much of the credit for these and the show’s many other virtues should go to its director, Michael Greif, who has visited this realm before: He explored youthful angst and the parental torments it triggers while staging the original productions of both Rent and Next to Normal. (Inevitably there are echoes: When Zoe gives voice to her resentment at her parents’ preoccupation with Connor, we’re almost back at one of Next to Normal‘s best songs, “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.”)

Greif’s principal achievement here, beyond keeping the show’s many elements in elegantly shaped balance, is to have drawn uniformly rich, grounded performances from his entire cast. That he achieves this result with experienced hands like Dossett, Jones, and Thompson is unsurprising. But young performers can be trickier to handle — though not, apparently, for Greif: He has five of them here, and all are first-rate. Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland bring extra depth to the sparsely written roles of Evan’s schoolmates and principal enablers. Dreyfuss is a touchingly perplexed Zoe, and Faist resourcefully embodies both the real Connor and the various versions of him that Evan invents, including a voice of conscience that suggests a demonic Jiminy Cricket.

And then there’s Platt, who has somehow managed to create this demanding role with a thoroughness of conviction and detail, in both acting and singing, that carries total credibility, and wins total empathy, from start to finish. The worried half-smile, the half-completed nervous gestures, the dialogue that comes either in a frantic flood or with eyedropper reluctance, the unexpected upper-octave notes that suggest an adolescent’s breaking voice without injuring the musical phrase: You don’t expect a performance this fully realized from a relative newcomer, even one with Broadway and film experience under his belt.

Nor do you expect it to come with this degree of emotional power — and by that I mean neither loudness of voice nor the impulse to march downstage-center and mug. Platt is never more moving than at Evan’s moment of confession, which he plays fairly far stage-right, in profile, half-stooped with shame, while the words burst out of him as if by their own volition. A lot of people are going to see Dear Evan Hansen — plans to move it to Broadway next year are already underway — and a lot of young actors will crave, and play, the title role. If they’re anywhere near this good, we’ve got a great generation of young actors look forward to.

Dear Evan Hansen

Directed by Michael Greif

Second Stage Theatre

305 West 43rd Street

212-246-4422, 2st.com

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