An absurdist struggle for roots, community, and stability in Off-Broadway’s ‘The Trees’ at Playwrights Horizons

In The Trees – a Jody Falco and Jeffrey Steinman Commission for Emerging Playwrights, now making its world premiere in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Playwrights Horizons, co-produced with Page 73 Productions – writer Agnes Borinsky takes a surreal neo-Absurdist look at stability, community, and the meaning of life in a changing mercenary world.

Crystal A. Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo. Photo by Chelcie Parry.

It all begins late one night, as Sheila and her brother David, 30-something Millennials who’ve been drinking at a party, stumble home in the darkness through a municipal park next door to their father’s house in Connecticut, tumble into a pile of fallen leaves, and decide to spend the night (or a hundred years) there. When they awaken the next morning, they discover that their feet have taken root in the earth and they can’t move. What follows, as word spreads throughout the area and a diversity of people comes to see them, is the unexpected growth of a new melting-pot society that thrives in nature but retains its electronic and digital devices (electrical cord, projector, movie camera, cell phones) and is threatened by the planned construction of a shopping mall, which would encompass the siblings, disperse the community, and destroy the ecosystem, all in the name of money. Or didn’t they awaken and it’s all just a dream?

Directed by Tina Satter, there are funny, insightful, and thought-provoking comments interjected throughout the mostly mundane conversations and situations by a growing assemblage of recognizable quirky types of different races, ethnicities, ages, and gender identities, who come and go, band together, occasionally share their thoughts, and provide a support system and chosen family for each other. Among the keen observations are hilarious remarks about conceptual art (a genre into which this play fits) and online fundraising platforms and the perks they offer, brief ruminations on life, death, loneliness, and the presence of love and trust, and a Hebrew verse (translated here as “Are the trees of the field human, to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”) from which the central conceit of people as trees is derived (and which also raises the question, as with our current re-examination of gendered pronouns, if Sheila and David consider themselves people or trees?).

The cast. Photo by Chelcie Parry.

There is also notable inspiration from Beckett’s absurdist masterwork Waiting for Godot, in the absence of a traditional plot (where, in the eyes of the deeply rooted Sheila, in search of a respite from her job and her usual life, “nothing happens” and “that’s the beauty of it”) and the lack of a resolution (they’re still waiting and wondering if and when the mall will be built) and perhaps from Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), in its surreal allegory on the human condition and the mysteries of life, and in the siblings’ Polish-speaking grandmother (the 17th-century Spanish drama is set in Poland).

Crystal Dickinson as Sheila and Jess Barbagallo as David lead an entertaining and spirited ensemble of ten (Danusia Trevino as Grandmother, Xander Fenyes as Ezra, Becky Yamamoto as Charlotte, Sean Donovan as Jared, Ray Anthony Thomas as Norman, Max Gordon Moore as Saul, Nile Harris as Julian, Pauli Pontrelli as Tavish, Sam Breslin Wright as Vendor/Terry, and Marcia Debonis as Sheryl – a diverse assortment of family, familiars, twinks, a businessman, and a member of the Shul Sisterhood) through the changing seasons and passing years, as they bond and battle, embrace the laughs and the array of humanity, along with the wolves and a bear (puppets by Amanda Villalobos), reminisce and stand with the young Ezra in his wish to stop the mall project, to preserve the natural life and beauty of the park for future generations. In the end, as David points out, “I have no idea what’s going to happen now” in the “vast expanse of an unknowable future.” There are no answers from Borinsky and there is no understanding of the absurdities of life.

Crystal A. Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo. Photo by Chelcie Parry.

The conceptual style of the script is echoed in the minimalist artistic design, with an all-white set by Parker Lutz of stylized trees and levels of the landscape, and a door to the house above with a white light illuminating its small window. The passage of time is revealed in the shifts in Thomas Dunn’s colorful lighting, the reappearances of a full moon in the background, the increasing number of furnishings the characters have brought into the park, and the fabulous eye-catching costumes by Enver Chakartash that are changed with the seasons and become ever-more colorful as the characters connect, calling to mind both the hippie communes of the ‘60s and the rainbow flag of the gay rights movement.  The visuals are enhanced with evocative sound by Tei Blow and Nazareth Hassan’s original emotive music.

For aficionados of Theater of the Absurd and fans of provocative new work, The Trees is at once curious and confounding, imaginative and audacious, filled with allusions and ponderings that will make you laugh and think. It’s not for everyone, but if you like to be challenged, it’s for you.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.

The Trees plays through Sunday, March 19, 2023, at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $61-101, including fees), go online. Masks are required in the theater.


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