It’s a rare play that suddenly gathers steam the way Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” does. At People’s Light in Malvern, it’s hardly the same play toward the end as it was when it began. Its two characters, in the space of an evening together, have been transformed.
In Samantha Reading’s solid production, the transformation seems natural, and that’s a feat. Gunderson’s play, about two high-school seniors who meet unexpectedly, comes out of the gate all self-conscious and hardly credible. For much of the intermissionless “I and You,” these kids do not speak like high-schoolers — they speak as if they’re puppets manipulated by a playwright trying very hard to guess how a high-schooler speaks. And even toward the end, one of them gives a supposedly impromptu address on Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” that could not have been possible.
Just what is possible in this play, and what is not, kept me wondering through “I and You,” which ends up a terrific piece of theater. All these things — the stilted talk, the strange way the characters at times interact — are merely fodder for Gunderson’s smooth and high-concept plot, which works itself out in a riveting way.
The San Francisco-based Gunderson is, according to research by American Theatre magazine, the most-produced living playwright in America this season. If you see the People’s Light production, you’ll know why. “I and You” has a way of not only playing with its characters, but playing with you.
The play begins with Caroline (boldly portrayed by Claire Inie-Richards) piddling around her room, which is also her prison for the moment — she’s confined there because she’s ill, cannot attend school and needs to keep herself on an even keel. When she wants a Coke, she texts her mom, downstairs. She’s come to the point where meaningful relationships are on Facebook, not face to face.
“I have a life — I text a lot,” she declares to a classmate named Anthony (Ricardy Charles Fabre, a calming presence in the role). The two don’t know each other, but have become involved in an American Lit team project centered on Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” He’s come to her room to do the work with her; she has no idea who he is or that she’s been assigned as half the team.
At first, she’s defiant and downright nasty. He’s hesitant and, facing her wrath, diffident. It’s not exactly the right atmosphere for Walt Whitman to thrive. And the project’s due tomorrow.
That’s how the play begins: awkward and unreal (except for the last-minute deadline). But somehow — I’m not offering details — on a large bedroom set by Dylan Jamison and Will Scribner, and with Christopher Colucci’s music and sound design, this unusual play becomes more real even as it becomes more unusual. At People’s Light, it’s one of those nights you remember.
—“I and You” runs through April 23 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.