Make Believe Review: Bess Wohl’s Elliptical Look at Child Neglect

“Make Believe” begins with a child on stage silently playing with a Cabbage Patch Doll in an attic playroom; after a while her sister calls out “Mom?” a dozen times off-stage.  Then her brother does the same.

This is how we meet the Conlee family children, portrayed by four child actors in the first half of the 80-minute play.

“We just have to get through this and get to be grownups,” says Chris, the oldest at 12. “And then everything is going to be amazing.”

In the second half, we meet four adult actors, returning to that same attic three decades later, and learn bit by bit the many ways that everything has not been amazing.

“Make Believe” is about childhood neglect — first the experience and then the long-term effect. That, anyhow, is how a psychologist or a social worker might describe it. But theatrically, Bess Wohl’s play is about… ellipses – just like Wohl’s 2016 play “Small Mouth Sounds” was about silence. In that earlier play, the characters were attending a silent retreat, and there was almost no dialogue. It was often a challenge for the audience to figure out what the characters were communicating from moment to moment, but the overall effect was original, amusing and moving.

“Make Believe” is slow moving, on purpose – slow to reveal what’s going on. On the surface, the first half seems comprised only of games – make believe – that the siblings come up with to pass the time. In one, twelve-year-old Chris (Ryan Foust) plays the Daddy, 10-year-old Kate (Maren Heary) the Mommy. Seven-year-old Addie objects (Casey Hilton) when Chris assigns her to be the baby.

Addie: I don’t want to be the baby. I’m the mommy!
Chris: Shut up or we’ll make you the dog.
Addie: But—
Chris: Fetch puppy, fetch!
Addie: Fine

They make five-year-old Carl (Harrison Fox) the dog. And young Carl does nothing but bark throughout the first 45 minutes of the play.

The reason why they’re by themselves is dribbled out in clues provided (cleverly) through their play-acting,  and (not as cleverly) by the messages we overhear from adults on the answering machine, in real time because the children refuse to pick up the telephone.

I’m reluctant to give away any more details about the children’s situation, even though the revelations are not explosive. They’re in fact mostly vague, and, in retrospect, obvious…inevitable. The greater payoff is in the second half when the children have become adults. We see not just what they’ve become, but are led to see one or two casual incidents from the first half in a new light. We realize they had a resilience in childhood — and that most of them no longer have it as adults.  There is one big surprise concerning one of the characters, which feels a bit inorganic, and a couple about the others that feel just right. I keep these from you because, for better or for worse, it’s the unfolding of these lives for us that makes the play – helped along by Michael Greif’s steady direction and a thoroughly professional cast, including the kids. . “Make Believe” is ultimately a modest play, less innovative than Wohl’s earlier experiment,  less challenging and less rewarding. But, for those who are patient and open to its approach, there is a satisfying depth in listening for what’s not said.

Make Believe
2nd Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater
By Bess Wohl
Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic design by David Zinn,  costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Ben Stanton, original music and sound by Bray Poor.
Cast: Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary,
Brad Heberlee, and Samantha Math
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $59 – $125
Make Believe is on stage through September 15, 2019

Update: Make Believe’s run has been extended one week, to September 22, 2019.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply