Circle Mirror Transformation @ Playwrights Horizons, New York

cast list
Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deirdre O’Connell, Heidi Schreck

directed by
Sam Gold
Five actors-in-training, lying face-up on the floor of a rehearsal studio. One. Two. Three. Four. Start again.

Theatre instructor Marty instructs a class at a local community center in Shirley, Vermont entitled Creative Drama for Adults, which includes amongst its four students her husband James, the recently-jilted Schultz, blonde aspiring actress Theresa, and Lauren, an introverted high schooler.

The class – and emerging playwright Annie Baker’s new play, Circle Mirror Transformation – is all about theatre games, in particular a counting game that begins the play and features at regular intervals, a game of trust that ends when the players talk over one another. Over the course of the play, the level of trust in the room increases as the characters come to know one another.
Cleverly, Baker uses classroom games to build three-dimensional characters. It’s a testament to her writing ability that while her play is so winningly comical it also blossoms into something deeper as characters reveal their insecurities, touching on stories from their pasts that illuminate how they’ve grown both as actors and as people.

Having parsed the language within to the bare minimum, there is no fat to be found on Baker’s winning skeleton of a play, which often gives an audience the impression that one is voyeuristically privy to a host of hilarious exchanges. The play’s various scenes, divvied up based on the weekly structure of the class, each end with clever buttons. But, appropriately, the comedy on hand never feels less than authentic.

Amongst an excellent ensemble cast, Tracee Chimo shines as Lauren, the awkward hoodie-wearing high schooler who comes out of her shell progressively as the play progresses. Reed Birney, as Schultz, impresses as well, playing a spurned middle-aged man whose attentions suddenly focus on Theresa (the quietly luminous Heidi Schreck), his buxom classmate who can’t quite live up to his expectations.

In Circle Mirror Transformation, the sense emerges that, through theatre, practitioners can learn only by gaining one another’s trust. By the end, we have discovered some of the darkest secrets from the characters’ pasts, but their lives are not necessarily made the better by this knowledge. Is it better to be left in the dark, however, the play seems to ask, or to face the world head-on?

With a light, deft touch, Baker (whose similarly thoughtful Body Awareness played at the Atlantic Theater in 2008) explores the depths of human interaction without cloying discussions of the characters’ inner desires. Besides for a few before- and after-class discussions, the exercises of the class speak for themselves. It’s refreshing to encounter a playwright who trusts her vision strongly enough to construct a world for her characters and allow that world to develop without overt interference.

Though nothing about Circle Mirror Transformation seems all that revelatory (there is no deeper social resonance and no shocking, important content), Baker hits all the right notes in unraveling the quiet story she’s set out to tell. Like the plain caterpillar on the show’s promotional artwork, her quiet play metamorphoses over the course of its 110-minute running time into something that flies, delicately, above much of today’s theatre.

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