Our Very Own Carlin McCullough
Amanda Peet’s Our Very Own Carlin McCullough is a drama of subtle but pointed misdirection. This talky, triangular study of a 10-year-old tennis prodigy, her big-hearted coach, and her struggling single mother proves to be less straightforward than it appears, comfortable with keeping the audience off-balance and skewing their perceptions to meet those of its blinded characters. Some hardly telegraphed reveals arrive abruptly, while other seemingly foreshadowed twists never come. And yet, despite these maneuvers, the play never feels calculated. Only human.
Making its world premiere in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, Carlin McCullough — a last-minute addition to the Geffen Playhouse’s 2017-18 season, replacing Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig — serves as a resounding affirmation that Peet’s auspicious debut, the 2014 Off Broadway play The Commons of Pensacola, was no fluke. Indeed, this is an even stronger effort: patiently paced as it builds to a dramatic crescendo, and stuffed with provocative questions about parenthood, mentorship, and family structure which it neither answers nor skirts, but rather mulls over with care and intelligence.
The first, slightly scattered act establishes the play’s dynamics. Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison) is nothing short of a tennis prodigy. She’s still in elementary school but already able to pull off moves far beyond what her trainer, Jay (Joe Tippett), can teach her. Jay blurs the line between coach and friend. The tender first scene introduces their playful back-and-forth, his comfort touching Carlin in a platonic and instructive way. The next scene introduces Carlin’s mother, Cyn (Mamie Gummer), who’s trying to balance a full-time job with the demands of her daughter’s new schedule. She’s also developed a bit of a crush on Jay.
The meat of the first act is set during the trio’s road trip to a youth clay-court tournament, where Carlin is primed to make her first mark as a superstar. They all share the same shabby motel room; Jay sleeps on a rollaway while Cyn and Carlin take up the main bed. There’s a disarming ease to this constructed family, effectively conveyed by Peet through naturalistic dialogue, and the cracks quickly start showing. Cyn’s on the verge of losing her job due to these travel requirements, and as talk — and evidence — of her daughter’s talent keeps mounting, it consumes her. While at the tournament, a coach from Stanford named Salif (Tyee Tilghman) offers Carlin a spot at Academy, the gold standard for professional-bound tennis kids — a virtually guaranteed pathway to success, with an apartment rental thrown in too.
Salif plants seeds of doubt as well — drawing attention to the way Jay touches Carlin, clarifying it’s not “wrong” but implying it could get there. It’s the first example of many where Peet rejiggers the mood, all but forcing us to step back and reconsider what we’re watching. It’s a quietly brilliant tactic; we’re in Cyn’s headspace suddenly, viewing Jay through a completely different lens. Cyn begins making Carlin change in the bathroom. She tells her not to wear Jay’s clothes. She questions why Jay doesn’t have any other students. And, surely, this idyllic little unit breaks apart — but in the name of protection, paranoia, or something else entirely?
The play changes shape from there, into a more shattering and compelling story, as its disparate ideas fuse into a powerful singular expression. (It also jumps ahead in time, with an equally adept Caroline Heffernan taking over the role of Carlin.) The second act begins with a very long scene that crystallizes the play’s primary theme: that of adults projecting their goals and fears and pain onto children. It’s a particularly significant idea for anyone who’s wandered the competitive youth-sports space, and Peet just nails it. Jay’s passion for Carlin as a player blinds him from who she really is and what she really cares about: him, a father-figure who’s become more present in her life than even her mother. Cyn’s dedication to Carlin’s success blinds her from the pressure she’s putting on her daughter. She descends into a kind of maternal madness, less concerned about her daughter’s well-being than her legacy — and her ability to keep them both financially afloat. Even Stanford coach Salif needlessly puts himself ahead of Carlin, caught up in the ugly politics of kids’ tennis: When he encounters her years later, he doesn’t even remember her.
Peet conceives Cyn as a figure of misguided desperation, and while Gummer portrays her with radiant empathy, she feels the thinnest of the main three. Her decisions propel the action of the play, but she isn’t granted the same interiority as Jay or Carlin, and recedes into the background for the conclusion. Indeed, it’s that pair who emerge as the beating heart of the play. We know very little of Jay’s backstory, and yet Tippett — who also played a coach on NBC’s short-lived Rise this year — offers such a full, nuanced embodiment that a whole lifetime shines through his performance. The actor expertly plays Jay’s buried rage, his reluctant contentment, and his profound affection for Carlin, all of which undergird a loneliness — a loneliness that can’t help but confuse his relationship with the girl he’s working so determinedly to help.
This is Peet’s magic touch: an authentic feel for people, beat by beat, as their emotions suck them into untenable situations. As a production, Carlin McCullough isn’t exactly splashy; the sets range from simple to drab, and Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is without flourish. But the play still has an immersive quality to it, a theatrical involvement. Peet shrewdly understands the humanistic power of secrets and surprises — how melodrama, at its most smartly crafted, can reflect our own warped experiences of life and love. B+