I and You, Lauren Gunderson’s two-character play that now has opened in New York, has been produced in some 20 theaters around the country (including Olney Theatre Center), receiving awards and much publicity, yet nobody has revealed the twist at the end. The twist is not just shocking; it makes the play.
The acting and directing in the New York production are competent, the design team does wonders in the relatively small stage of 59E59 Theatre A, and the playwright has something profound she wants us to take out of the theater. But just knowing there is a surprise ending, yet not knowing what it is, provides a narrative suspense that propels us through the seemingly aimless patches of an encounter that begins when high school student Anthony (Reggie D. White) enters the bedroom of Caroline (Kayla Ferguson), much to her surprise and annoyance. He tells her that she’s his partner in their English class poetry presentation. The poem they are supposed to be studying is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the homework assignment a critical analysis of the uses of the pronouns in the poem (hence the title of the play.)
At first, Caroline wants no part of Anthony or of the assignment: “Walt Whitman can bite me.” But over the course of the 90 minutes of the play, she warms to Anthony ….and to the poem.
Caroline is ill — “I’ve been sick ever since I was born.” – but she has become more incapacitated recently, so that Caroline now stays at home, keeping up with her schoolwork, more or less, online.
Facing her own mortality, she responds to Whitman’s poem about life and death, and the playwright shows us why, with extensive quoting from Whitman, and some plainspoken but spot-on analysis.
Much of the dialogue between Anthony and Caroline is banal, but it is intentionally so – these are today’s teenagers talking – and sometimes it is intriguing and even amusing in its banality: “I think the camera is the best thing that humanity ever came up with,” Caroline says. “That and maybe sleeves.” One senses in retrospect that the contrast between their language and Whitman’s is deliberate. It’s part of what the play is trying to say, about a connectedness that Whitman advocated that we’ve all but lost in an era where being connected has come to mean spending time alone with the latest gadget. (“I swear to god if I lose wifi?” Caroline says at one point. “I’d rather lose my nose.”)
“I and this mystery, here we stand,” Anthony says in the very first line of I and You, quoting from Whitman’s poem. It’s only near the end, when Anthony recites a long passage from Whitman that ends in “Your very flesh shall be a great poem” that we begin to understand that Lauren Gunderson has tried to give body to Whitman’s belief.
I and You is presented by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, on stage at the 59e59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, New York, NY., between Madison and Park Ave.), through February 28.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Sean Daniels. Featuring Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White. Scenic design by Michael Carnahan, costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting design by Brian J. Lilienthal, sound design by David Remedios. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.