We all build imaginative worlds when we’re children. But as adults, we’re expected to leave make-believe behind. If we don’t, we’re labelled mentally ill. Johnna Adams’s two-hander World Builders: A Love Story asks what might happen when two people who’ve lived much of their adult lives in their own worlds are sent to a mental health facility to receive an experimental cure. Might they not rather stay in their imaginary universes – maybe even feel an obligation to the made-up inhabitants?
Flux Theatre Ensemble’s new production of this intriguing play stars Alisha Spielmann (Flux’s Jane the Plain and Rizing) and August Schulenburg, the company’s co-founder and a gifted playwright himself. Both give muscular, all-out performances over what must be an exhausting 95 minutes without intermission. The dialogue is artfully crafted, Kelly O’Donnell directs with a sure hand, and the early going suggests a strong result.
Schulenburg makes Max’s reluctance to reveal his secret world a thing of painful beauty and jabbing humor, while Spielmann’s adept characterization gives us a Whitney whose persistent urge to reveal her own fantasy milieu becomes a biting need. In their relations with the outside world, the two have much in common.
The tension arises as Whitney opens up further and further while Max continues to resist. What’s so awful about his imaginary world? After a while, we really, really want to know, but he keeps parrying her thrusts. The devastating answer, when it comes, is much more grounded in humanity’s real worst elements than are Whitney’s space-opera fantasies.
Once the ice has broken, affection can begin to blossom between these two troubled people. And once a real-world relationship has germinated, it can even explode into a bitter battle of insults pitting imaginary world against imaginary world. It can touch off emotional revelations of past traumas. These “sick” people might even, finally, give in to the “feelings” Whitney has resisted so adamantly.
Yet by the time these things come about, the script has begun to bloat beyond the concept’s capacity to fill it. And before the final conflict arises (should they continue taking the pills and let their worlds die?) my patience wore out.
Their imaginary constructs, Max says, have “so much color we can’t let them grey it out.” This, even though his world is the grim one. It’s sad, tragic in fact, that he’s become dependent on the continuing traumas of his imagination. Whitney’s involvement in her own fantasy world, by contrast, begins to strain believability as it pipes into cuteness.
Yet the characters’ vividness overcomes that potential problem. The play’s stumbling block is the over-expansiveness of the dialogue, which culminates when the experiment is over. Packed and ready to go home to their families, Whitney and Max passionately – and incessantly – debate how to achieve a happy ending together. Like real life, but unlike an effective stage drama, it just goes on and on. We’ve come to love these two, but in the end they exasperate us beyond tolerability.
The strong performances, the likable and interesting characters (costumed so realistically by Stephanie Levin), Will Lowry’s inviting set, O’Donnell’s effective use of music, and the rest of the technical elements add up to a beautifully realized production. It’s just that, as Gertrude Stein might have said, there’s way too much there there.
World Builders runs through May 13 in at the West End Theatre in New York City. A Los Angeles production opens in July. Visit the Flux Theatre website for schedule, location, and tickets.