Rarely is a play so eerily timely as Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth, which is about the very personal aftermath of an incident—we are led to believe a school shooting—that has led to the deaths of a number of classmates of two 13-year-old teenage children, Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) and Zander (Ian Saint-German).
Ferrentino says she is indebted to this New Yorker article about a local newspaper reporting on the Sandy Hook massacre as an inspiration for her quietly powerful drama, but the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February obviously looms largest—by freak of timing Ferrentino’s play provides an echo to current events.
This isn’t just because of the shared school massacre event, but also because of what makes the Parkland tragedy so distinctive—the commanding role of the surviving students, and their galvanizing activism to take on the NRA and change gun policy.
Julie and Zander in This Flat Earth—directed by Tony winner Rebecca Taichman—are similarly the focus in Ferrentino’s play.
They are not overtly political, but like the Marjory Stoneman students they want to take matters into their own hands, to claim back some independence and self-determination, as the waves of the tragedy and its consequences—an uplifting concert, a visit from the vice president, who the kids recall has really bad breath—continue to engulf and swamp them.
The children in This Flat Earth are younger than the eloquent buccaneers we have seen on television in recent weeks. They are both off school, the return date after the tragedy is approaching. They’re watching movies, and broken inside, trying to figure out how safe they are. They are way too old way too young, and they’re also adolescents, Zander trying to figure out how and if he should try to kiss Julie.
Dan (Lucas Papaelias), Julie’s dad, is doing the best he can as a single parent (his wife is dead), while Lisa (Cassie Beck) is grieving the loss of daughter Noelle in the incident. Upstairs is Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), an elderly lady living on her own, listening to the dramas unfold below, and soon—when Julie and Zander climb up the exterior fire escape—bringing those dramas to her apartment. Dane Laffrey’s excellent design slices longitudinally through both apartments.
The play, for all its subtlety, feels unfocused and airless. Julie, despite being seemingly very wise, has never ever heard of any other school massacre. (To be fair, other characters are as incredulous as this critic was about that.) The play is a series of screams, silent and not-so silent, and while it is supposed to be the present day, it doesn’t feel like it.
Nobody talks at any moment—and these are presented as intelligent, sensitive, eloquent people—directly about the shooting that has happened, or the social context within which it has happened. The plotting to bring the children and Lisa into conflict is clunky and unconvincing.
Class and privilege are the unspoken, then very spoken factors. Julie and Dan live on the hill in the unnamed New England seaside town setting. The better-off families, making up the majority of the school’s population, live below. Dan and Julie have lost so much, and stand to lose much more. Julie couldn’t afford to pursue her passion for cello, but it is Cloris’ great love; and off-stage the Grammy-nominated Christine H. Kim plays passages of a Bach cello concerto, beautifully.
What we see in the two children is a mixture of devastation, shock, and all the more regular swirling oddness of adolescence. Kennedy Davis is angry, sad, and confused, asking the same plaintive question of the unseen fates at the beginning and end. The play has all the clothing of urgency, but none of the swagger or directness.
This Flat Earth doesn’t answer any of the questions about why school shootings happen. It doesn’t even try to. It asks what children can cope with, and what we expect them to cope with. Kennedy Davis and Saint-German provide brave and thoughtful performances, with Kennedy Davis asking the central question: Why should she have any faith in the adult world, when it has so badly failed her, and failed to keep her safe?
The play never progresses out of its own anger and frustration. OK, you might say, these terrible events often make us feel powerless and furious. But a play should either delineate that frustration, or find a convincing psychological route through it.
The dereliction of adults—something the Parkland students have indicted so powerfully—is the constant.
This Flat Earth is at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York City, until April 29. Book tickets here.