Simply put, Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” — which kicks off the fourth season of the Mile Square Theatre at its cozy digs on Hoboken’s 14th Street — is a play about homework.
But that’s selling it short. The two-character story, which takes place in the bedroom of a homebound teenage girl awaiting a liver transplant, also tackles life, death, poetry, jazz, youth and, most of all, hope. It’s alternately funny and sad, cruel and sentimental, with a twist ending that I won’t spoil except to say that it both took me by surprise and seemed utterly inevitable.
Simone Grossman plays Caroline, a teenage heroine who’s equal parts Rory Gilmore and Katniss Everdeen. (Or, if you’re a little older, Katie Holmes’ Joey Potter from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek.”) If you’re at all familiar with Young Adult fiction, you’ll know her right away: Fiercely intelligent, precociously self-aware, prodigiously articulate and completely certain that she’s always right about everything.
Caroline has been sick her whole life, and now finds herself too sick to go to school, so she lives in her messy bedroom, surrounded by childhood toys and haunted by her dream of becoming a globetrotting photographer. She’s startled one evening to find a strange boy in her room, clutching a backpack and a piece of poster board.
Her intruder turns out to be Anthony (Roland Lane), who arrives quoting Walt Whitman: “I and this mystery here we stand.” Anthony comes from the same YA universe of idealized young people as Caroline. He’s tall, good-looking and athletic, but endearingly geeky (he listens to jazz and loves poetry). He asks Caroline’s help to finish his English project on Whitman’s use of pronouns in “Leaves of Grass.” (That explains the play’s title.)
One little problem: It’s due the next day.
And so Caroline and Anthony form an unlikely alliance, slowly coming to trust one another and share their most intimate secrets. He loves John Coltrane, she dances in her room to Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s a jock, she’s a wannabe artist. Whitman becomes the third character in the room, as his words help frame the teens’ discussions of life and death, hope and despair. Anthony cannot help but be inspired by Whitman, surrounded by the carnage of the Civil War and still finding joy and hope in mankind. Caroline, scared to admit her fear of dying, fights back, repeatedly insisting that “life is shit.”
MST’s artistic director Chris O’Connor directed and, as we’ve seen in the past, he has an unerring feel for comedic timing. For a play that’s obsessed with death, “I and You” often evokes easy laughter, and there’s never a moment that feels false or falls flat.
Lane’s IMDB photo shows a bit of gray in his beard and, at first glance, he seems much too old to be playing a 17-year-old. But almost immediately, he slides into his role and becomes completely believable as this idealistic kid whose head explodes with ideas and emotions. Grossman makes a perfect Caroline, so obsessed with her phone and social media that she’s at first unable to deal with the reality of an actual person in her presence. They seem real, although it certainly doesn’t hurt that from “Dawson’s Creek” to “Riverdale,” we’ve become accustomed to watching older actors portray teenagers.
It’s not hard to see why “I and You” has been one of the most produced plays in high school, college and regional theaters over the last few years. Two appealingly familiar characters, one set and that O. Henry ending. I can see how the twist would appeal to teenagers; it’s the boys standing on their desks chanting “O Captain! My Captain!” at the end of “Dead Poets Society,” or the unexpected blow of fate in the final reel of “The Fault in Our Stars.” To adult audiences, though, it may feel a bit contrived. Especially since it renders everything we’ve seen before irrelevant.
But that’s a fault with the play, not the production. And if you’ve been looking for affordable live theater that you can enjoy with your kids, “I and You” makes an ideal choice. There’s nothing more risqué onstage than a few chaste kisses and a PG-rated discussion of Whitman’s homosexuality.
Sixteen years ago, the fledgling Mile Square Theatre presented a single play outdoors in Hoboken’s Sinatra Park. Since then, it’s flourished and grown, and this year will open the MST Annex, a large studio and rehearsal space. The theater’s mission since its inception has been to bring the arts to all residents of Hoboken — old-timers and newcomers, adults and teens and children. “I and You” serves that mission admirably.
“I and You” will be at the Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken through Feb. 24. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.