Montreal’s Mainline Theatre has brought “Gratitude” by Oren Safdie to New York’s Urban Stages, and it is quite a strong premier for the show. Set in a private school in Canada in a disused locker room, the play explores teen sexuality (quite vividly), gender and consent. Throw in the clash between Canadian and the more traditional societies from whence some of its immigrants have come, and you have a play that is tense and uncomfortable to watch in places. The discomfort is deliberate. Indeed, it could be the whole point for some.
“Gratitude” opens up a lot of topics that make people cringe a bit, and then it makes them stare at those things. Najaf (Aline Salloum) is a young woman who comes from a family of immigrants from one of those nations where marriages are arranged and gender roles are clear. She attends this co-ed school with Drew (Erik Larsson) with whom she is infatuated. He manipulates her into sexual acts with two of his friends, Ben (Jake Bryan Guthrie) and Josh (Jalen Ford). It spirals out of control from there largely from manipulation of one person or another. The premise is that if a person does something for you, you should not only be grateful but express that gratitude. The play illustrates how flawed that can approach can be. The title could just are readily and accurately been “Manipulation.”
Each of the young cast members delivers a solid performance, and each deserves praise for their work. More than that, though, Director Maria Mileaf has brought them together into a cohesive unit that makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. That ensemble feeling doesn’t always happen in the theatre, and it is impressive that these young people have achieved it. Audiences can tell when it occurs.
The script itself feels as if there is a scene missing at the beginning. The background stories of these characters is largely missing. We don’t know why Drew, who is failing a couple classes, is popular. He is handsome to be sure, but so what? Nor do we understand why Ben and Josh are his friends. Josh actually says that if they didn’t have Drew in common, they probably wouldn’t speak to each other. Something is missing there.
As for Najaf, we have a girl growing into womanhood who is pulled between her own desires and the duty she owes her family. Or so she says. We really haven’t a clue about her home life. When she announces that she has a boyfriend in college and they are getting married when she graduates, I thought of the numerous fictional girlfriends and boyfriends who live in Canada invented by insecure teens. It turns out she was not kidding and that he is the jealous type. Needless to say, a fictional boyfriend would have been better for her. Safdie’s script, despite this shortcoming, works exceedingly well.
Returning to the cast, go see them in this show now. You will be able to tell your friends that you saw them before they made it really big. It is truly exciting to watch an artist realize his or her potential, and that is what is really happening here
Running Time: 75 minutes without intermission
“Gratitude” is playing at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, New York City, now through June 30. For more information and tickets, visit Urban Stages’ website.