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High Dive

Fall has the heart of an Updike novel, but the soul of a made-for-TV drama

Lydia, the narrator in Fall, keeps talking about how stupid it is that she has to go to swing camp with her parents. They drag her to a two-week dance retreat on an island "off the coast of Southern California" -- Catalina? -- and at first you think you're in for an Updikey play about self-involved parents of the new Swing Generation. You imagine cocktails, Internet jokes, an all-but-abandoned teen daughter, and swinging of various kinds. "This is our family time," Lydia's mom growls at the recalcitrant girl. "Don't fuck with family time."

But the generational drama is sparse, because most of the adults in Fall are gestures instead of people. The play amounts to a monologue by Lydia, attended by Peanuts-like shadow parents. Some of this exclusive focus is intentional. Lydia's a sharp-tongued, insecure 14-year-old, played perfectly by Megan Austin Oberle, with rolling eyes and a crooked mouth; she's loaded with hormones and anger and intense terrors that resemble fantasies. The real action of the play sometimes merges into projections from her own fevered brain, as when she sees her mom making out with, say, a character named Jack Gonzales, doing intense and furtive things with him that she, Lydia, wants to do. "Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex," she says to her dad, who flinches. "It's all about sex, isn't it?"

Well, yes. Fall is all about sex.

Oberle Descending: Jill (Nancy Bell) comforts Lydia (Megan Austin Oberle) in this coming-of-age tale.
Richard Anderson
Oberle Descending: Jill (Nancy Bell) comforts Lydia (Megan Austin Oberle) in this coming-of-age tale.

Details

Written by Bridget Carpenter. Choreographed by Peter Pucci. Produced by the Berkeley Repertory Theater and Baltimore's Center Stage. Through March 11. Tickets are $16-51; call (510) 845-4700.
Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley

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Lydia's mom, Jill, is hip and trim and sexy. Nancy Bell plays her with a balanced offhandedness and not much else. (There isn't much else to do with her.) She's the only member of the family who wants to be at swing camp, and we learn that Jack Gonzales used to be her colleague on a school faculty. In fact, they used to be lovers. He's here without his wife. Is he the reason Lydia's mom dragged the whole family to swing camp? Maybe. We never find out, because the tensions and motivations of the adults are a contrived background to Lydia's coming-of-age; she takes one look at the youngish Jack and, well, falls for him.

Falling becomes an overused metaphor. The dance lessons Lydia takes become lessons in relinquishment -- allowing herself to be led and dipped -- and all the serious monologues turn heavy-handedly on falling or flight. At the play's low point, Jack tells Lydia about his mother's death. He was 5, watching his mom take a ride in a hot-air balloon. He waved; she waved back, leaned too far from the basket, and fell. Not only is this corny, but Lydia takes the occasion to analyze the story for Jack (who's 10 years older) in a way that seems utterly new to him. "Your mother?" she says. "I bet she always wanted something, something she couldn't name ...." Hmmmm.

Lydia likes to scuba dive -- a variation on the falling metaphor. She drops her sarcasm only when lost to herself underwater. The diving scenes have a pretty effect onstage, with Lydia riding on the backs of two aqua-colored sea spirits, under blue light, while a large turntable spins underfoot. The sea spirits are danced by Chad Kubo and Niloufar Talebi, two real-life swing instructors who also lindy across the stage during the dance-class scenes. Peter Pucci choreographs them well enough, but the dancing in Fall feels both gratuitous and underutilized -- as if director Lisa Peterson hasn't made up her mind whether it should serve a theme or just decorate.

The other characters in the play -- Lydia's dad (Andy Murray), Jack (Thomas Christopher Nieto), the camp counselor Gopal (Donnie Keshawarz) -- seem to lean in toward Lydia like a stand of identical trees; they're amused and tolerant, but remote. When things fall apart over Lydia, they get into a Hollywood-style brawl. The climax doesn't work because playwright Bridget Carpenter hasn't taken the adults' emotions seriously enough; their reactions to Lydia's fall from grace are willed instead of felt.

Fall world-premiered last May at the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. Carpenter is being treated like an up-and-coming playwright in this co-production by the Berkeley Rep and Baltimore's Center Stage. She's won all sorts of fellowships and written several other plays, including The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (& Anna). She shows a real talent for voice, and the character of Lydia -- especially in Oberle's hands -- gives the play a glittery, wise-ass surface that should amuse most people. (I was surrounded by aging Berkeley moms who remembered having daughters like Lydia; they seemed to love it.) But the script has the soul of a made-for-TV drama, I'm afraid, and it gets confused -- like Lydia -- whenever it dives too deep.

 
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