British playwright Polly Stenham is still in her mid-20s, but she has received the kind of attention from the London theater power brokers — commissions, awards and lavish praise — that most emerging playwrights in the cash-poor world of American fringe theater can only dream about. Her debut, "That Face," penned when she was just 19, pushed her to the forefront of a new generation of British female playwrights.
I didn't see "That Face" in its local premiere last year at Redtwist, but Stenham's follow-up, "Tusk Tusk," is now in its U.S. premiere with Piven Theatre. As a showcase for teen actors — quite a few of whom Piven has trained during the past 40 years — it's a powerhouse, as one might expect from a writer close in age to the characters. Director Jennifer Green's production has a decidedly grungier edge than one usually sees at this venerable story-theater outpost. But frankly, it's just not a very good play, and at two hours, it takes too long to tell us nothing particularly new about abandoned kids.
Eliot (Bryce Lunsky) and Maggie (Olivia Cygan) are 16 and 14, respectively. Their mentally ill mother has taken off for parts unknown, as she has so many times in the past. Terrified that they, along with their 7-year-old brother, Finn, (Gabriel Stern) will be put "in care" (the British foster system) and split up, they hide out in their filthy London flat, waiting like teenage versions of Beckett's tramps for their Godot-like mum to return.
"Tusk Tusk" takes its title from David McKee's allegorical children's book about black and white elephants that war against each other. But the literary antecedents for Stenham, which she references in neon, are Peter Pan and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Eliot — with his increasingly desperate belief that he can outwit the adults and his appetite for making time with his own version of Tiger Lily, the lovely Cassie (Austin Moore) — is obviously meant to be Peter. Pragmatic and increasingly anguished Maggie plays Wendy to her lost boys. And adorable Finn imagines himself as Max from Sendak's book.
The insularity of the world created by Stenham tends to be suffocating (and repetitive, and occasionally pitched at high volumes), so that when outsider Cassie does enter, one wonders why she doesn't quickly grasp that something is amiss with the siblings and call the proper authorities. Stenham also can't make a convincing case for why Maggie in particular, who we learn was always the responsible caretaker for their screwed-up mother, doesn't grab Finn and leave once Eliot's behavior starts shading into dangerous territory.
Kids growing up too soon and raising their younger siblings because of absent parents can be rich territory, as the Gallagher clans in both the British and American versions of the television series "Shameless" demonstrate. And in its more playful moments, Stenham's script convinces us of the fierce bond these three have forged. But as the melodrama heats up, the believability fizzles out. These bold and brave young actors deserve a better showcase.
When: Through Oct. 7
Where: Piven Theatre at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $25 at 847-866-8049 or piventheatre.org