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(photo by Joan Marcus)

The Conlee kids are forced to fend for themselves in Bess Wohl’s Make Believe (photo by Joan Marcus)

2econd Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 22, $30-$89

Bad things tend to happen in fictional stories involving attics. Think V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic, Yoji Sakate’s The Attic, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings. If the brain is like a house with many rooms, the attic is where psychological fear resides (very different from the more otherworldly horrors that await in basements; ghosts live in attics, while demons hide down below). Such is the case with Bess Wohl’s poignant Make Believe, which has been extended at 2econd Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through September 22. The Harvard and Yale grad further establishes herself as one of our smartest, most perceptive playwrights with the eighty-five-minute drama, even if there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the premise: Four young siblings become troubled adults because of severe parental neglect. But it’s Wohl’s skill in writing insightful dialogue and creating strong characters in convincing situations that makes the show a worthy successor to such previous works as American Hero, Small Mouth Sounds, and
Continuity. So it’s no surprise that her next play, Grand Horizons, will make its New York debut on Broadway at the Hayes Theater in December.

Make Believe begins in 1980, as twelve-year-old Chris (Ryan Foust), ten-year-old Kate (Maren Heary), seven-year-old Addie (Casey Hilton), and five-year-old Carl (Harrison Fox) are playing in their attic, pretending to be “one big happy family,” Kate says, more wish fulfillment than reality. The attic, designed by David Zinn, is decked out with a large tent, tables and chairs, and large windows facing the street. Their father is on a business trip, and their mother has seemingly disappeared. At first the kids act like it’s no big deal, but as day turns into night and then day again, they start worrying about their survival, deciding to fend for themselves without ratting out their parents.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

The grown-up Conlees face a traumatic moment in their past in Bess Wohl play (photo by Joan Marcus)

As the show opens, Addie is playing with her Cabbage Patch Kid while her siblings hover in the background, dressed as ghosts in white sheets with eye holes cut out. It’s more ominous than sweet; something is going to happen that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. When they sit down for a pretend dinner with Kate as the mom, Chris as the dad, and Carl as the dog, they mimic their parents’ unhappiness and their own reticence about getting older and becoming adults. “Remember: Don’t ever have children,” Kate advises her siblings. Later, Addie says, “Grown-ups aren’t real anyway. They’re only monsters with masks on.” Just when you think that the whole show will be with the children only, the adults (Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Brad Heberlee, Samantha Mathis) enter the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. It’s thirty years later, and they’re back in the attic, revealing the scars their childhood imprinted on them.

The four young actors in Make Believe are exceptional; I could have watched them all night, each one doing a superb job handling complex material. Director Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Rent) provides a smooth transition to the present, the kids now adults picking up the pieces of their haunted past. The themes of how parents can mess up their children’s future and how hard it is for kids to get over bad memories are common ones, but Wohl maneuvers through it with breathtaking finesse and a quick wit. “Grow up. Grow up, you idiots,” the young Kate says, to which Addie responds, “A wolf is coming.” In Make Believe, the wolf is at the door of the attic, then and now, ready to attack.

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