The Fountain Theatre's Los Angeles premiere of Lauren Gunderson's "I and You" comes with many of the indignities of our city's small-theater scene: the inadequate parking, the oppressively cozy seating, the ushers' admonitions not to walk on the stage. The production wears its budget on its sleeve: two-person cast, shabby if lovingly detailed set.
I wedged myself into this claustrophobic situation without the slightest inkling of how far away it would take me.
In a frustrating way, the play gives very little away for much of its running time. The story is set in the bedroom of 16-year-old Caroline (Jennifer Finch). Designed by Tom Buderwitz as a collage of visual cues, the room conveys Caroline's affinity for cats, photography and vintage rock. She's a little messy. Also, there's a bedside table cluttered with pill bottles and balled-up tissues. Something is wrong.
We meet Caroline at the moment she meets Anthony (Matthew Hancock), who appears in her doorway and announces, "I and this mystery, here we stand." It's a line from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," he explains. But Caroline is so startled and hostile that it takes Anthony a while to establish his purpose: They're in the same English class, and they've been assigned to do a project together on Whitman.
I wished Gunderson had skipped the introductions, or at least spent less time on them. Anthony's story is full of holes, and his prolonged, cumbersome exposition raises more questions than it answers. Caroline is too ill to attend school regularly, so she's keeping up online. But surely she would have been aware of such a major assignment. The strained scenario makes both performances feel unnatural -- Finch's abrasive, Hancock's adorable but implausibly saintly. They speak in teen slang, or an adult's quaint simulation of it, but Anthony's self-possession seems precocious. Has any 16-year-old boy ever been so gracious and unflappable?
Whitman, that old rascal, eventually starts to work his magic on the bilious Caroline. At this point the play gets more comfortable with itself, and more familiar, settling into after-school special territory. There's a montage in which Anthony reads poetry aloud to Caroline, under Jocelyn Hubbard Parker's pulsing lights. As Caroline softens, the actors' rapport becomes more persuasive.
Then Gunderson throws in another odd, clunky plot point.
Yet by the curtain call, I believed that each of these puzzling choices was essential to "I and You." What alchemy transformed me? It all hinged on the ending, which some could find manipulative or kitschy. For me, it worked, yanking me out of the everyday, giving me a tantalizing, Whitman-esque glimpse of cosmic interconnectedness, redeeming my faith in the power of intimate theater.
Certainly, banking everything on the last few moments is a risky strategy (though less so when there's no intermission); director Robin Larsen chooses to trust the play in all its deceptive clumsiness, refusing to hint at where it's going, using the limited stagecraft at her disposal to create a payoff that's worth the frustrations of the journey.