Adolescent socialization and the fragile tissue of human connection are the subjects of Lauren Gunderson’s I and You directed by Robin Larsen, now receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre. Caroline (Jennifer Finch), a prickly high school senior with an unspecified illness, balks at a drop-in visit from Anthony (Matthew Hancock, recently of the Fountain’s The Brothers Size), a classmate begging her assistance for an unfinished poster board on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
A more nuanced, highbrow version of The Breakfast Club (but with just two people), Gunderson’s play nails youthful stabs at intimacy in the post-digital age, but falters in executing an underdeveloped, late-stage reveal. Finch and Hancock share moments that ache with angst, but the performances often slip into a staginess that undermines the realism the story tries to capture.
The play unfolds in Caroline’s room, an explosion of cat pictures, shoes and tchotchkes (designed by Tom Buderwitz) whose Harry Belafonte records and bedside medication stand hint at less predictable preoccupations. In décor, dress, and texting habits, Caroline seems young (I had her pegged at 15 until the delivery of a clarifying line), with the brittle demeanor and aggressive unfashionableness of someone trying to actively drive people away. In contrast, Anthony is the kind of genial Luddite who enjoys listening to Coltrane and champions print over searchable text. His unwelcome intrusion initiates a campaign to undermine Caroline’s defenses long enough to get an A and possibly persuade her that “Song of Myself” isn’t the worst thing ever.
Finch’s part offers the greater opportunity in this two-hander, but also the bigger challenge as a character who is already playing a kind of role. At times, Finch struggles to negotiate this terrain, with acting that takes on a distracting, self-conscious quality. Her early exaggerated disbelief at Anthony’s appearance, already prolonged in the script, becomes more grating than funny. Later, she overplays Caroline’s awkwardness trying to cover her stirring attraction toward Anthony. Hancock also falls victim to too-rapid reversals, though his performance smoothes out Finch’s highs and lows. The best moments for both actors, and the play, come when the characters forget to keep their guards up and offer tentative insights under the guise of explicating Whitman’s verse.
Those delicate, rich moments are why I had to fight a visceral distaste for the play’s unearned ending, which undermines the story and its characters’ bravery in the face of an uncertain future. It feels, at minimum, like artistic overreach or a sentimental ploy.
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; through June 14. (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com.
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