Sunday by Jack Thorne, directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans is a striking look at youth in its misery and glory. Thorne, best known for his success with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, doesn’t take the easy road in this play which melds narrative, action and dance sequences to reflect all that we need to know to understand Thorne’s characters and the events that happen one Sunday evening to impact their lives. The dance sequences representative of the energy and vitality of the characters provide a much needed contrast throughout thanks to Lee Sunday Evans (Dance Nation-Obie, Lortel awards) who also directed.
The active narrative by Alice (Ruby Frankel) summarizes a catch up history of the characters in the opening scene and particularly focuses on protagonist Marie (Sadie Scott shines in the second half of the play) an outlier and self-conscious, introvert. Alice comments on choice tidbits during the extended evening of drinking, talking books and sniping sub rosa insults, prefacing her commentary to shore up the audience’s attention about a character’s particular “defining moment.” She concludes her narrative with an epilogue reviewing how each character “turned out” decades later as a fascinating exclamation point.
As we reflect on their interactions in present time, we have a superficial glimpse into how they may have evolved to their final result in the future. But this is in retrospect; hindsight is an exact science. We learn what they “have become” at the play’s conclusion.
The only character who has substance so we may empathize with her is Marie. But between the past and the future which Alice relates is the shadow of present time, a Sunday evening party among “friends.” As we watch the “major” event unfold, Thorne relates an important theme of the play. Human beings rarely live in the present moment to understand how that moment has a particularity all its own. Nor do they understand how it leads to the next and next in the series of the rest of the moments of their lives. Only when there is acute pain and a shattering soul earthquake do they turn on an axis to remember the jump off point into another development in their life’s journey.
On this particular Sunday evening, Marie experiences an event and responds to create a sea change in her life which she propels in one direction, a return to home for solace and comfort. Thorne shows us the how and why of it. Meanwhile, the other characters, especially Bill are the backdrop against which Marie batters herself into an awakening to change the direction of her life.
Evans has staged Alice above the fray to comment on the action and characters as she sits with a lone spotlight in the dark on piles of books, then comes down to join the others for the party. The books are a quasi dividing wall in Marie’s and Jill’s apartment n New York City where they live and work and have their book sessions. Perhaps the book wall is an intellectual symbol to keep others out. It is an intriguing set piece. On this evening right before they gather, Bill (the excellent, Maurice Jones whose vibrance carries the second part of the play) the neighbor stops by and tells Marie he can’t join her for the party since he works the next day. He also asks Marie if she can keep the music down.
From the time the others join in and have their discussions about the book of the evening and more, we learn salient pieces of information about each of them. The conversation is not earth shattering, the wisdom is not in abundance and the self-indulgence is obvious. Jill and Milo are an item and express their affection. Marie doesn’t appear comfortable. As she recently lost her job because she doesn’t “fit in,” it seems that she now carries this mantle into the party. Though her strong friendship with Jill (Juliana Canfield) is a boon, Milo (Zane Pais) appears to be jealous and resentful, especially toward the end of the evening as he insults Marie. Keith (Christian Strange) rounds out the group of drinkers adding his opinions.
The most pleasant session of the first segment of the production is the dance sequence. A few times the group break into a dance to express their inner emotions, yearning to escape from their lives of boredom and sameness. The actors have convinced us outright of the stasis and purposelessness of their lives. Thus, the dances are a breath of fresh air. Indeed, more could be added to break up the monotony of talking heads who slide past each other without really looking for the uniqueness or resonance of each other’s humanity.
As the evening comes to a close and the others leave, Marie falls apart and weeps for her miserable self. Her self-recriminations spiral her into an emotional refuse pile of self-loathing. For solace she calls Jill to come back and spend the night with her away from Milo. When the knock comes at the door, we are relieved to see it is the interesting Bill who makes his way into her apartment stating he couldn’t sleep.
The scene between them evolves with humor (Maurice Jones’ timing is spot-on). And there is a sensual tension that holds promise stoked by Marie who is desperate to make human contact so that she won’t feel so alone. Ironically, it is she who is the one who pushes the sex on Bill. And it is he who avers and attempts to slow the situation down to get to know her better. A writer, he eventually shares his novel’s plot. Indeed, he is one with whom she could, if she is ready, establish a lasting, sensitive relationship with. Thorne gives us this clue when Bill responds to her question what is it that he likes about her. Bill’s answers are poetic, profound, lovely. However, Marie in loss and confusion pushes the sex, demeaning Bill’s ethos and being. Clearly, her devastation and emptiness cannot recognize who Bill is and the soul clarity he can offer her.
The ending and the epilogue follow fast and we are disappointed. We understand that the human factor takes over. Marie fails to seize the opportunity for love that stands in front of her. Allowing the morass of self-loathing to overwhelm her, she chooses a path of retreat. In the epilogue that April matter-of-factly delivers, we discover how she lives the rest of her life from then on, materially. Whether her soul spark resurrects, April does not delineate. The sense of loss of human creativity and opportunity for something marvelous in the lives of these characters, regardless of their bank accounts, overwhelms.
Thorne’s play is about so much more than youth grappling with identity in a chaotic world. It is about the soul and the spirit missing the tremendous chances offered which are not taken up or recognized. Fear and self-restriction in the protagonist Marie as everywoman looms in everyone’s lives. To break beyond self-loathing, purposelessness, misery and disappointment takes courage and persistence. It is easy to return to a place of comfort which neither challenges nor stimulates us to be different. Thorne’s themes resonate not only for this age group, but for every stage every age group. Boredom is not an option, nor is self-loathing as long as there is life. As Thorne suggests, we define the moments in our lives when we control the narrative. It is when we allow others to define who and what we are that we become lost.
The play is slow moving in the beginning to exact Thorne’s themes and for the dance scenes to represent the great contrast in the inner souls of the characters who find dance their purpose and form of expression. Also, the contrast between the younger characters’ callowness and Bill’s wisdom, likeability, sensitivity and grace (so beautifully rendered by Maurie Jones) pops because the ensemble is by nature invisible emotionally with the exception of Marie. The scene between Jones’ Bill and Scott’s Marie is smashing and worth a look see for the acting, writing and direction.
Sunday features scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, lighting design by Masha Tsimring, sound design by Lee Kinney, original compositions by Daniel Kluger
Sunday runs with no intermission at Atlantic Theatre Company (West 20th Street between 8th and 9th) until 13th October. See it before it closes. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.