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'Make Believe' review: Bess Wohl's tricky play intrigues

Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Maren Heary and Harrison

Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Maren Heary and Harrison Fox in "Make Believe." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

'Make Believe' runs through Sept. 15 at the Tony Kiser Theater. 305 W. 43rd St., 2st.com

“This is just our childhood. We’re not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up.” So a 12-year-old boy optimistically suggests to his three younger siblings following a series of strange and likely traumatizing events in “Make Believe,” Bess Wohl’s tricky, troubling and intriguing portrait of four children and their agonized transition into adulthood.

The 80-minute play is receiving its New York premiere in an Off-Broadway production by Second Stage directed by Michael Greif, whose prior hits with Second Stage include “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Next to Normal.”

The first half of “Make Believe” is led exclusively by four child actors, who portray characters ages 5 to 12, as they play games in an attic and wonder about the whereabouts of their mother, who has suddenly gone missing. Their father is apparently on a business trip — and accompanied by another woman.

The siblings often engage in role-playing. Chris (Ryan Foust) and Kate (Maren Heary) re-enact some of the violent confrontations they have witnessed between their parents, while Addie (Casey Hilton) plays a baby and the mute Carl (Harrison Fox) plays a dog, going so far as to pretend to urinate on the furniture.

It is unclear much how time passes in between these short scenes. Occasionally, Chris leaves the house and comes back with groceries, raising the question of what he did to pay for them. Whenever anyone telephones the house, the children listen through the floorboards to the answering machine, as various adults check in on their mother.

Eventually, the children get dressed up and ready to leave — but to go where exactly? And immediately afterward, the play is taken over by four adult actors (Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood, Kim Fischer and Brad Heberlee) who find solace in the attic following a funeral — but whose funeral exactly? Although the adults play characters with the same names, that does not necessarily mean they are older versions of the same people — or at least not all of them.

Days after seeing it, I am still thinking over the play’s intricate construction and flowing transitions and how, under Greif’s sensitive and precise stage direction, it walks such a fine line between delicacy and brutality and between comedy and creepiness.

“Make Believe” certainly ought to heighten anticipation for “Grand Horizons,” which will be produced on Broadway by Second Stage beginning in December. Just as time instantly flashes forward more than 30 years in “Make Believe,” Wohl (who is best known for her silent meditation retreat comedy “Small Mouth Sounds”) appears to have instantly become a noteworthy playwright.

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