Writer-director Tony Devaney Morinelli's play "When Lilacs Last" began life at a private high school, the Shipley School of Bryn Mawr, Pa., to be exact, where he has taught for nearly 30 years. A story of two boys, one brainy and one a jock, coming to terms with being gay in South Philadelphia in 1955, it mixes in physical abuse from their fathers and the rampant bigotry of their community. Judged as a high school production, it's an admirable attempt, certainly better than anything I was in back in the day at Fairview High. In the Fringe, though, it is being put forward as a professional production. It's not, despite the presence of three adult actors as the parents, all of whom seem much too young for their roles.
The title comes from the Walt Whitman poem. Indeed, Whitman's poetry (one of the boys is always toting a tattered copy of "Leaves of Grass" about with him) is scattered throughout, delivered by a chorus of five actors. Its relevance is never established, though, as they lack the ability to render it effectively. Morinelli awkwardly mixes kitchen-sink drama with labored soliloquies and impressionistic crowd scenes, and he has an unfortunate tendency to have his characters repeat lines several times in succession, often as an unsuccessful attempt to button a scene.
Ironically, it's James Deitrich and Christian Santilli, as the boys, who make "Lilacs" blossom. They created these parts at Shipley, where Santilli is still a student (Deitrich just graduated). Neither can act on a professional level yet, but their commitment is total, and there's a genuine connection between them that gives the play what power it has.
Presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the Connelly Theatre, 220 E. Fourth St., NYC. Aug. 22–29. Remaining performances: Wed., Aug. 25, 6:45 p.m.; Thu., Aug. 26, 4:45 p.m.; Fri., Aug. 27, 6:30 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 29, 3:45 p.m. (866) 468-7619 or www.fringenyc.org.