Off-Off-Broadway Review: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM (U.S. Premiere at Connelly Theater Upstairs)

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by Paulanne Simmons on January 30, 2024

in Theater-New York


Sam (Uly Schlesinger) is a bright, articulate and sincere young man. But he is also nervous, sensitive and bitter. In fact, he has recently attempted suicide. Actress Ruby Thomas’s first play, The Animal Kingdom, explores what family relationships might lead to such an act.

The play, making its U.S. premiere at the 50-seat black box Connelly Theater Upstairs and directed by Jack Serio, unfolds as a series of six therapy sessions led by Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith), who is very skilled at managing helpful confrontations. The other members of the group are Sam’s voluble and haunted mother. Rita (the excellent Tasha Lawrence), taciturn but judgmental father, Tim (David Cromer) and his much-neglected sister, Sofia (Lily McInery).

Tasha Lawrence, Uly Schlesinger, David Cromer, Calvin Leon Smith, Lily McInerny

Various factors that may have played into Sam’s troubles are his sexuality (he’s queer, not gay), his parents’ divorce, and a genetic predisposition to depression. Accusations, denials and defenses abound. The play gets its name from Sam’s intense interest in the behavior of animals. They certainly come across a lot better than humans.

Although the acting in this production is consistently exemplary, it is undermined by Wilson Chin’s set, which has the characters sitting on a carpeted stage surrounded on three sides by the audience and a mirror on the fourth side. This means that often the audience cannot see the faces of either the people who are speaking or the people who are reacting. In a play that is all about family dynamics, this can be fatal.

Calvin Leon Smith and Uly Schlesinger

In fact, Thomas has written a play that (no surprise) gives juicy parts to all the actors but leaves the audience with little idea of what she is trying to tell us and no opportunity for meaningful action. The play does allow for considerable self-reflection and self-discovery. But it is not clear this will lead to any major changes in the lives of the people involved.

By the end of The Animal Kingdom, Rita and Tim are slightly less clueless. But Sofia, despite her momentary outburst, still feels angry and abandoned. And there is no reason to believe Sam will not attempt suicide some time in the not-too-distant future.

Lily McInerny

If you’re really into voyeurism or you’re intending to enter the field of psychotherapy, you may find this play fascinating or instructive. Otherwise, after 80 minutes, you may find yourself asking what’s this all about?

photos © Emilio Madrid

Calvin Leon Smith, David Cromer, Uly Schlesinger

The Animal Kingdom
Connelly Theater Upstairs, 220 E 4th St, Manhattan
Tues-Sun at 7:30; Sun at 2:30 (Feb. 4)
ends on February 17, 2024
for tickets ($39-$75) visit Animal Kingdom

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