‘Make Believe’ Theater Review: Why Childhood Isn’t for Sissies

The kids are not all right in Bess Wohl’s arresting new play

Bette Davis once said that old age isn’t for sissies. Neither is childhood, as playwright Bess Wohl well knows. Anyone who had a childhood needs to see Wohl’s new play, “Make Believe.” And that goes double for anyone who remembers having an unhappy childhood, which, again, is anyone with a memory. Wohl’s funny, touching and ultimately very disturbing new play about a troubled family opened Thursday at Second Stage.

As a quick perusal of the Playbill or press materials makes clear, four of the eight actors in “Make Believe” are cast age-appropriate, which is a real challenge when you consider that those ages are between 5 and 12. The four very talented child actors here — Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary and Casey Hilton — completely hold the stage on their own for the first half of this 85-minute drama.

This casting is a truly audacious move on the part of Wohl and director Michael Greif, and it works, in part, because these kids can act. Equally important, “Make Believe” is all about acting or making believe, as children are prone to do, and the more these four child actors make believe — or, in effect, overact – the more convincing their performances become. In a very sly way, Wohl has child-proofed her play.

“Make Believe” is constructed around a numbers of reveals that are, one by one, slowly disclosed to the audience. A review shouldn’t give many of them away, but from the get-go, it’s obvious that the four children are alone in their house, upstairs in the playroom attic, and since childhood can be a really boring chore, they entertain themselves — distract might be a better word — by play-acting. The roles the two older children adopt are those of Mom and Dad, bickering and taunting each other, and sometimes their misbehavior spills over into also verbally abusing the two younger children, who play themselves, as well as the family dog.

It’s both funny and disturbing to watch, and what makes it downright sinister is that “Make Believe” very subtly begins to recall “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This family of four children are also trapped in an attic, their heads sometimes pinned to the floorboards to listen to what’s happening below them. Of special interest are the phone calls they hear on the answering machine located downstairs, and the suspense for them, as well as the audience, is almost unbearable. Who might discover them, ensconced up there in the attic? One of the children’s sad fixation on a particular movie star even recalls Anne Frank’s similar devotion to the idols of the silver screen.

Wohl tells the story of these children in an attic in a series of vignettes, each ending with a blackout. It prevents her young actors from having to sustain long moments on stage. It’s also portentous to watch as Ben Stanton’s lighting design signals several changes in the daylight streaming onto David Zinn’s very realistic attic set. Bray Poor’s original music and sound design contributes to the sense of doom.

Four adult actors take over in the play’s second half. They are Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Brad Heberlee and Samantha Mathis, and once they take the stage, “Make Believe” plays out in real time to the end. As with the child actors, I don’t want to identify their respective roles, because so much of the pleasure of watching “Make Believe” is one of discovery. Suffice to say that their characters have gathered, again in the attic, for a family funeral many years later. Even if you don’t pay attention to the names of the four children, the remarkable writing and the direction and the four performances here are so spot-on that you know within seconds who’s playing whom from the play’s first half.

The revelations pile up as the siblings remember (and mis-remember) the past horrors that no amount of time can erase, and are parsed out among them with deprecating humor. One major reveal caps “Make Believe” in splendid, heartrending fashion. Wohl is a great storyteller.