You probably remember Mr. Karp's acting class. It's the one where students try to be a table, a sports car, an ice-cream cone. Ms. Kreisberg's class engages in similar activities, but it's worlds away. For there, where we spend all of "Circle Mirror Transformation," Annie Baker's splendidly sensitive new play, everyone feels everything.
In truth, acting is merely a pretext. The five men and women in class don't come to find characters; they come to find something. They're not so deluded as to assume they'll find it in the middle of Vermont, in adult-ed creative drama, but what do they have to lose?
Schultz (Reed Birney) is a recently divorced artisan who'd like to be more of an artist. Lauren (Tracee Chimo) is a 16-year-old hiding in her hoodie. Theresa (Heidi Schreck) has finally abandoned New York and her dreams of professional acting. James (Peter Friedman) doesn't know where it all went. Marty (Deirdre O'Connell), the earth mother, teaches the class in order to find a bit of control in her New Age life.
Smartly, sneakily, Baker gives us the rare theatercentric play that's not self-obsessed. "Circle" is about real people exploring their lives through tiny leaps of faith and creativity. And while those people are played by actors, they behave like real people—hell, they even look like real people. What they have to say is awkward and funny, sometimes lovely, sometimes sad. There's no beatification of the mundane, yet we do see beauty in the ordinary.
Sam Gold's direction is as effortless and excellent as the performances. Each actor has his or her time center stage, but here the smaller moments, the reactions, register just as much. I'll not soon forget Chimo's wide-eyed mix of disgust, embarrassment, and arousal upon encountering two classmates in an intimate moment. Just as memorable: Friedman visibly storing rage in his throat like some sort of a ticking frog bomb.
That the play is slight, even shrinking in its aftermath, is among its many improbable strengths. One of its main themes, after all, is the transience of meaningful connections. "Do you ever wonder how many times your life is going to end?" one character asks late in the play. For some the answer is, More than others. I think they're probably the luckier ones, for all the rebirths they experience. This play is one of them.
Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Dec. 15–Jan. 31. Tue.–Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Casting by Alaine Alldaffer.