Rare Birds, the new comedy-drama from the prolific Adam Szymkowicz, tackles a subject not rare in the least. Bullying, an issue du jour of the past several years, has received much media coverage, often highlighting horror stories of deadly extreme cases. But Rare Birds proves that talent and skill can make an “issue” piece a compelling work of art.
What’s rare is Szymkowicz’s gift for naturalistic dialogue. Enacted by a cast with saber-sharp timing under the skillful direction of Scott Ebersold, Rare Birds winks in its opening moments at Chekhov’s gunshot rule when a pair of high schoolers out for cheap thrills shoot and injure a songbird. Enter Evan (Jake Glassman), sensitive bird-lover, high school loner, and sullen, volatile adolescent son of a single mom (Tracey Gilbert). Evan yearns to “get out of this hellhole” – his room with its bird posters and drawer full of bird t-shirts, the home he shares with his persistently interfering mother, indeed his whole persecuted, misunderstood life.
School is a torment for Evan, who is teased incessantly for his meek bird-loving ways by the ssame bullies who shot that unfortunate bird. When angry, aggressive Dylan (George Colligan) and laid-back joker Mike (Dylan Guerra) learn about Evan’s crush on the popular Jenny Monroe (Joanna Fanizza), they hatch a classic digital-age bullying scheme that crushes Evan, and incidentally Jenny too, with the end-of-the-world embarrassment adolescents fear so mortally. Meanwhile the threat and reality of violence hovers over the action.
The bullies’ trick is rather predictable. So is the revelation of the motive for Dylan’s furious aggression – a twist I recall from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. But wisely, Szymkowicz doesn’t concoct redemption or indeed any resolution for Dylan. He leaves the bully’s fate hanging, and focusses instead on what we’ve come to really care about: the central character. Glassman’s thoroughly imagined and embodied Evan is an Everyman for our disjointed digital age. In a performance as easeful as it is edgy, he makes us recognize the piece of Evan in all of us, if only in our memories of our emotionally raw younger days.
No less fully realized are Janet, who harasses her son with worry (with, we learn, very good reason), and Robert Buckwalter’s Ralph, the gentle amateur boxer whose incipient romance with Janet is threatened by Evan’s hostility. Fanizza shines in her late scene as Jenny, whose fundamental goodness glows like a beacon of hope over Evan’s devastated sense of self.
The finely constructed and sharply executed dialogue makes us ride along eagerly even through some less ostensibly believable scenes. After a sequence of smoothly escalating episodes of conflict and cruelty, gentle good humor mingles with nail-biting anxiety in the climactic sequence. We’re left shivering with angst, yet aware of the possibility that goodness can sometimes triumph.
With a seamlessly talented and committed cast, and a set, costumes, lighting, sound, and projections precisely conceived and executed in high-end Off-Broadway style, director Ebersold has fashioned a fine “issue” entertainment that doesn’t feel message-y at all. It’s a winner from start to finish.
Rare Birds from the Red Fern Theatre Company runs through April 9 at the 14th Street Y Theater, and donates a portion of ticket proceeds to the non-profit End to Cyber Bullying organization. For tickets call 212-352-3101 or visit the Red Fern website.