Review: “A Swell in the Ground”

(left to right) Sydney Charles and Keith Neagle in The Gift Theatre’s world premiere of A SWELL IN THE GROUND by Janine Nabers, directed by ensemble member Chika Ike. Photo by Claire Demos.

SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Dec. 10
Tickets: $30-$40
Phone: 773-283-7071

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

For a play like Janine Nabers’ “A Swell in the Ground” to work, we really have to care about the characters. Unfortunately, the world premiere at The Gift Theatre, directed by Chika Ike, offers no compelling reason why we should.

Nabers’ 105-minute piece, named for a line in Emily Dickinson’s “The Chariot,” falls into a familiar pattern. It follows the intersecting lives of four characters over a number of years during and after college. The years are from 2001, with a by-now-requisite trauma caused by 9/11 for one of them, to the summer of 2018. The subject matter includes hook-ups, relationships, marriages, divorce, children, and to a lesser extent, careers with their attendant frustrations and rewards. The setting is for the most part New York, in apartments and at various functions.

The gimmick, which is not exactly original, is that the scenes aren’t in chronological order. They hop around in time, though the reason isn’t always obvious, and the dates are projected on the wall, at least most of the time. In one case, two scenes in two different years are enacted simultaneously.

The characters are Olivia (Sydney Charles), an African American woman from a well-off Detroit family who has an interest in microbiology and apparently becomes a teacher; Nate (Keith Neagle), who is white, Jewish, and wants to be an actor, though he’s pressured into going to law school; Charles (Andrew Muwonge), a successful businessman with a questionable past regarding his treatment of women, who has a connection to Olivia that seems to go beyond the fact that they are both black; and Abigail (Darci Nalepa), Nate’s mate before and after Olivia, who is a white one-time alcoholic and loves him more than he does her. Their mutual friends, Chrissy and Fernando, seem to have a happy marriage and are much talked about but never seen.

The evening opens with Olivia and Nate meeting somewhere on the sidelines of a concert. At this point, they’re seniors and barely know each other. He’s drunk and stoned and enjoying the music. She’s ill at ease, refuses the beer he offers, and doesn’t really want to be there. But all of a sudden, she decides to get drunk, share his joint, and hook up with him.

Despite Olivia’s discomfort, which we soon learn is caused by her father’s recent death in one of the planes on 9/11, I assume we’re supposed to sense the chemistry between this pair. But Neagle and Charles don’t click at all, so their scenes together are awkward, contrived feeling, and poorly paced whether they’re courting ardently or fighting violently about the things the couples typically fight about. We don’t for a second believe that they love each other, much less that they are in love, so that their battles and break up fall flat, as do their subsequent regret-filled meetings.

Although racial issues are barely mentioned and aren’t the cause of Olivia and Nate’s failed marriage, Charles and Muwonge seem to be a lot more in sync when Olivia and Charles (the character) become a couple, and Neagle’s Nate and Nalepa’s Abigail evolve in that direction, too. She’s the most underwritten of the four, but Nalepa brings a wry sense of humor to the role that humanizes her.

Other than that, “A Swell in the Ground” seems a lot longer than it is, and that is not a good sign. The most impressive achievement is Eleanor Kahn’s bilevel scenic design that reconfigures the tiny theater and makes creative use of the postage-stamp stage with a couple of nifty surprises.