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Off-Broadway Review

The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness

The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness
Photo Source: Carla Ch
Who can recapture the inner turmoil of the teenager? "When we express what's in here, most people can't understand it," says the 17-year-old Greta in Carla Ching's new play "The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness." But Ching's attempt to articulate the perils of growing up rarely engages with real emotion, intellectualizing rather than expressing the inner life of adolescence.

The play's title refers to the fabled candy house of Hansel and Gretel, and Ching's work updates the fairy tale for the modern age, trading the woods for the wilds of New York City and swapping the evil witch for a nasty reform-program director. After the death of their adoptive father and abandonment by their adoptive mother, Greta (Ali Ahn) and her brother, Han (Christopher Larkin), are forced to navigate through their grief, a path that no amount of breadcrumbs can help them trace.

After the siblings are taken in by their uncle, Greta turns rebellious and is admitted to a reform school run by taskmistress Barbara "Baba" Yaga (Cindy Cheung). In another thinly veiled nod to the fairy tale, Baba is always snacking from several jars of colorful candies—a stand-in for the witch and her sugary house—at a desk that stands out amid the stark whiteness of the school's holding rooms.

The play is filled with these winking references, which are witty but too superficial to carry weight. Baba is always armed with a chalk-tipped cane, for example, which she uses to draw shapes around her charges, physically fencing them in. "That's how parents express love—with boundaries," she explains, but director Daniella Topol's literalizing of the metaphor distracts from its emotional significance.

The same is true for the gimmicky Twitter feed that intermittently interrupts the action, recording Greta's musings on the question "What do you do when you lose something you can never get back?" Another attempt to modernize the story, the tweets rarely add to it, taking us out of the emotional arc of the play by analyzing and overthinking things. The tweets are also hard to read, projected as they are onto Clint Ramos' otherwise smart set, which combines the white walls of a mental hospital with signifiers of home: lamps, lanterns, rattan chairs.

The cast too often follows suit with an over-the-top theatricality that is wearying. Greta claims to "feel more" than other people, but Ahn's exaggerated outbursts come across as manufactured rather than authentic, a flaw that might stem from the fact that she is just not believable as a 17-year-old. (We expect teenagers to bask in melodrama, but what about a 25-year-old?) Larkin counterbalances Ahn, giving Han a sweet passivity that belies a roiling pit of pain beneath the surface. Han composes a handful of simple songs over the course of the play (written by Larkin and Ching), and they are some of the production's most poignant moments. It's a breather from the chalk boundaries and the unnecessary tweets, showing that raw emotion is often best expressed unadorned.

Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company at the Connelly Theater, 220 E. Fourth St., NYC. Nov. 15–Dec. 4. Schedule varies. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111,, or

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