Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees rests on a ridiculous premise: After a night of heavy drinking, brother and sister David (Jess Barbagallo) and Sheila (Crystal A. Dickinson) wake up rooted to the ground outside their father’s house. People don’t turn into trees overnight, of course. But they do stagnate, equivocate, and refuse to evolve. These themes emerge as the driving force of this earnest and confounding play, a co-production of Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions.
The audience learns little about the siblings’ backstory. Sheila lives in Seattle, and David has a partner, Jared (Sean Donovan), who promptly dumps him when he morphs into shrubbery. There is a grandmother (Danusia Trevino) who speaks only Polish and performs ancient rituals to ward off bad spirits. A developer played by Sam Breslin Wright starts hanging around, his personality both sneaky and benign, and he begins to suggest enclosing a mall around the human vegetation as a means of protection.
Even if the interpersonal details amount to little, the overarching ideas add up to a lot. Borinsky’s script feels overstuffed and thin at once, largely because she seems more interested in using her characters to address weighty subjects than actually treating them as people. I spent much of the play’s 100-minute running time trying to guess where the focus would settle—is this a treatise on environmentalism? A comment on the lack of community among millennials? A love letter to family, both chosen and blood-bound?—and largely coming up empty.
Tina Satter’s austere production doesn’t help matters. When the material already holds the viewer at arm’s length, you need to offer ways into the world of the play, not an even farther remove. Parker Lutz’s brutalist, columnar set design provides few visual referents, and Enver Chakartash’s costumes come across as quirky for their own sake. (I’d love to have the Mao-ish pantsuit that David wears at the top of the show, though!) Satter’s directorial choices foster an arch style among the performers that blunts what feel like sincere choices on Borinsky’s part.
The always striking Dickinson resists the urge to lean fully into the work’s unavoidable tweeness, and Max Gordon Moore is affecting as Saul, a rabbi who becomes convinced that David and Sheila’s transfiguration holds a religious significance. (Another theme underexplored.) But the production comes alive only in the final 15 minutes, when Marcia DeBonis arrives as Sheryl, a member of Saul’s congregation who makes her own pilgrimage to the park where the siblings are rooted.
Finally, Borinsky gives us a flesh-and-blood human being to hold onto, and DeBonis brings her customary large personality and subtle vulnerability to the assignment. I felt the glistening of tears welling as she described the events of her life that led her to become Bat Mitzvah in later life, which fully spilled over as Sheryl showed true compassion to every single person onstage. (The production features a large cast of 12, including the promising child actor Xander Fenyes.) If only the whole experience felt this immediate and genuine.
I anticipate that some people will leave The Trees with a highly personal connection to the material, while others will be left scratching their heads. I fell somewhere in the middle. In an program essay, Borinsky writes that “the life we look back on is rarely the life we thought we were building.” That’s a beautiful and true sentiment, appropriate for dramatic investigation, but here, it gets subsumed by too many concurrent ideas.