Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 30 January 2024

Review: The Animal Kingdom at the Connelly Theater Upstairs

Connelly Theater ⋄ 25 Jan-10 Feb

The U.S. premiere of a play about a family in group therapy that is well-directed, acted, and staged, but ultimately feels hollow. Lane Williamson reviews.

Lane Williamson

“The Animal Kingdom” at the Connelly Theater Upstairs (Photo: Emilio Madrid)

In 2022, director Jack Serio brought the U.S. premiere of This Beautiful Future to New York and established himself as an exciting new auteur on the off-off-Broadway scene. Now, with The Animal Kingdom, Serio brings over another play from the U.K. for writer Ruby Thomas’ stateside debut. Reuniting with designers Christopher Darbassie (sound), Stacey Derosier (lighting), and Ricky Reynoso (costumes) along with new collaborator Wilson Chin (set), this production brings a highly-detailed aesthetic into a tiny space, characteristic of Serio’s other work. Likewise, the acting is spectacular across the board – Serio has an impeccable eye for casting. But in his world of hyper-intimate theatre, the text and the physical production have to be equally strong. Unfortunately, Thomas’ play is not a match for Serio’s strong visual and emotional storytelling.

Sam (Uly Schlesinger) and his therapist, Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith), await the arrival of Sam’s family for a group session. Sam has been engaging in self-harm and has survived a suicide attempt. His chatterbox mother, Rita (Tasha Lawrence), conversely silent father, Tim (David Cromer), and younger sister, Sofia (Lily McInerny) arrive and, over the course of six sessions, discuss the family history as it relates to Sam’s mental health. 

Thomas’ play condenses these six sessions into around 80 minutes, with time jumps both within and between sessions. While the play’s brevity is welcome, it also feels like it doesn’t have enough to say. As it blips around, it gives the impression of a highlight reel – in this scene someone yells, in this scene someone reveals a secret, in this scene there’s a tentative hug. It keeps the play tight, but it verges on exploitation. If these therapy sessions are only the big moments, the connective tissue is lost and we’re only seeing the family at their most vulnerable.

A play set in group therapy is well-covered territory and Thomas doesn’t subvert those tropes. While her dialogue is crisp and, occasionally, quite funny, it’s not enough to hang the play on. The characters are people we’ve met before, their trauma has been unpacked by others. It’s not minimizing their fictional pain or any real-life events they may be inspired by to ask why this play is telling this story. 

Is it just a vessel for great actors to cook? It’s definitely doing that. Cromer appeared in Serio’s impeccable revival of Uncle Vanya last summer, but here he’s working in a different key. He makes Tim’s silence feel necessary, to him, in the ecosystem of their family. Tim is withholding, but Cromer makes it clear that it’s because he doesn’t have the ability to communicate, not because he doesn’t want to. That’s something his ex-wife and son, big talkers, can’t understand. 

Lawrence has the broadest, most comedic role in the play, but her part is also the most stereotypical. Right at the beginning, Rita announces she’s a doula, which is, inevitably, played for laughs. “I help women to become mothers,” she tells Daniel, which feels like Thomas telling us to watch how she’s failed in her own mothering. But, by all appearances, she has been a good, if somewhat overbearing, mother to Sam. When Rita’s shield comes down later in the play, Lawrence reveals the struggle this woman has been covering up in an affecting piece of acting.

Thomas writes Sam and Sofia as younger refractions of their parents. “Sofe is more resilient, like her Dad,” Rita says. “But Sammy. You’re like me aren’t you? He really feels things.” Schlesinger is tasked with holding Sam’s uncontainable anguish and it’s almost uncomfortable to watch, like we are peeping in at something we shouldn’t see. In a bravura monologue, McInerny releases the stifled pain Sofia has carried by deferring to her brother’s needs for so many years. It’s an excellent rendering of a younger sibling who has been diminished by her brother’s shadow.

Smith is the production’s MVP, though. Daniel spends most of the play calmly facilitating the conversation, keeping mostly neutral. Smith works in brief reactions that show us Daniel is annoyed or moved or amused by the family, but mostly maintains his professional exterior. It’s a difficult role, one built on observing and inquiring without revealing, but Smith manages to do both. Thomas has Daniel reveal a bit of his past to Sam towards the end of the play and the glimpses of Daniel we’ve seen throughout cascade over Smith in an abundance of warmth, kindness, and underlying sorrow. It’s a remarkable performance and the most captivating part of a play that’s not actually about Daniel.

Chin’s chairs and table feel just cheap enough, but on the nicer end of what this institution has to offer. Derosier’s lighting comes down from one oversized industrial fluorescent-esque fixture that washes the family in a sterile rinse. Reynoso’s costumes are, as always, incredibly detailed and our close proximity to them lets that work be seen. Darbassie’s sound creeps in when you least expect it, unmooring the ear from dialogue when the time jumps occur. 

The sensitive, layered acting and detailed design work, along with Serio’s gift for bringing an audience immediately into a play keep The Animal Kingdom taut. If only Thomas’ play had more to latch onto.

Lane Williamson

Lane Williamson is co-editor of Exeunt and a contributing critic at The Stage. He is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.

Review: The Animal Kingdom at the Connelly Theater Upstairs Show Info

Produced by Jack Serio

Directed by Jack Serio

Written by Ruby Thomas

Scenic Design Wilson Chin, COSTUME DESIGN: Ricky Renoso

Lighting Design Stacey Derosier

Sound Design Christopher Darbassie

Cast includes David Cromer, Tasha Lawrence, Lily McInerny, Uly Schlesinger, Calvin Leon Smith

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1hr 20min


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