April 15-30, 2016
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston Public Works on Facebook
Review by Travis Manni
Trigger warning: sound sequences referencing the 9/11 attacks.
(Boston, MA) You ever have one of those moments when you spontaneously start crying and you’re not entirely sure why or where it came from? That’s how I felt after watching Unsafe, a self-proclaimed psychological thriller by playwright Jim Dalgish.
Set in 2003 in a New York City apartment, we meet Lisa (Anna Botsford), a 40-year-old widow raising her young daughter Georgie (Natalia Tsourides). The girl has a rare genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome, which can cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, but also a sociable personality and matured verbal skills. The phone rings, and Georgie rushes to answer and buzz her grandparents in to celebrate Lisa’s birthday. Guy (H. Kempton Parker) is a traditional business type and Yvonne (Michelle Pelletier) is the humorous sort that enjoys stirring the pot.
Next to arrive is Nathaniel (Tony Travostino), a doctor who has taken a liking to Georgie and wants to learn more about Williams Syndrome, though only to publish a book about the disorder. Lastly, Will (Elliot Sicard), an addict being chased by his dealers, unexpectedly enters, crashing the party of his estranged stepmother. After his father, and Lisa’s husband, died in the 9/11 attacks, Will disappeared. But his return sparks a reconnection, temporarily assuaging the fear of the looming threat Will dragged to Lisa’s front door.
The staging of this show was one of my favorite parts about it, heightening the intensity of the drama. There were a couple of actors who sat on the outskirts of the stage during the show and would occasionally throw in a prop, and the aggressive way that they moved set pieces around was such an interesting contrast to scenes as they played out. And both times that a mystery visitor was admitted into the apartment, my heart pounded as the elevator buttons lit up on each floor, until the doors finally screeched open.
The cast of this production was also one of its biggest assets. Elliot Sicard as Will was so emotionally committed to telling this story that I immediately recognized a piece of myself in his character. The love that he portrayed for Georgie was genuine and devastatingly beautiful all at once. Anna Botsford as the haunted Lisa delivered a fantastic performance, but reached new levels of raw, psychological unraveling during the show’s second act that my heart broke for her character. And Michelle Pelletier as grandmother Yvonne was sharp in her comedic timing and knew how to command the attention, drawing out a number of laughs but then bringing us to our knees during the show’s devastating conclusion.
However, this play’s shortcomings are overpoweringly strong and make the emotional landscape of the play a confusing experience. For one, the show is too long. What Dalglish tries to accomplish in a two-act play could have been accomplished in a condensed, more compactly edited single act. There are too many plots and subplots going on, none of which are truly fleshed out, leaving me more drawn to characters and their experiences in single, fleeting moments and never concerned for their long-term wellbeing. There’s the daughter with a genetic disorder, and her doctor who is trying to use her to gain royalties as an author. The grandfather who is negotiating this deal. An underlying relationship, or pursuit thereof, between the doctor and mother. The flirtatious grandmother that enjoys creating drama and whose wig became a confusing subplot on its own a la Queen Mary’s demise in Roberto Devereux. And drug-addict Will being chased by dealers.
As if this wasn’t more than enough stimulus, this all sat on the outskirts of a post-9/11 setting that felt like a forced trope. By the end, it seemed as if the audience was only there to offer sympathy to these characters during each of their mental breakdowns. While I often obliged, I never understood why I was so moved in these moments, and left the performance feeling rather detached from the characters.
Unsafe is a psychological thriller that teases at the emotions of the audience without giving them much cause to sympathize with the story it is trying to tell. That being said, it made me feel, it made me cry, and I felt like I had witnessed raw emotion. Yes, it was lengthy, but perhaps this is all we should every expect art to accomplish.
Unsafe runs for 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. You can purchase tickets by clicking here.