"How a Boy Falls" is a mystery thriller that is too rushed to work

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Steven Dietz’s How a Boy Falls is a moody, twisty little mystery-thriller, but unfortunately not one in which it is easy to become invested. This may have to do with its running time, which I was told upon entering would be 90 minutes. Too bad it wasn’t: lasting only 75 minutes, this play felt rushed, and another fifteen minutes might have been very useful to allow its characters and complicated plotline time to fully coalesce. As it is, we have the theatrical equivalent of coffee that has not had time to perk: nicely hot and smelling wonderful, but far too thin to satisfy.

The plot, which jumps around in time from scene to scene and conceals many secrets from the audience, centers on a young woman named Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) who is hired by a wealthy tech designer couple (Tim Decker and Michelle Duffy) as an au pair for their four-year-old boy. The one caveat Chelle receives upon her employment: don’t let the kid anywhere near the cantilevered balcony overlooking the sea, which Duffy’s Miranda does not believe to be stable. Of course, the boy does somehow end up out there, and before Miranda even realizes it all that remains of him is a baseball cap down on the rocks.

There are two other characters in this drama in which no one is quite what they seem to be: Travis A. Knight as Mitch and Sean Parris as Sam, two men who meet at a bar as they both stare out the window at the same pretty woman (Chelle). Mitch, who believes he has far more “game” than Sam, encourages the latter man to try his luck with her, but to do so by pretending to be whatever kind of man she seems to desire. Unfortunately for Sam, what she actually wants at that moment is a hitman.

Don’t worry about spoilers: all of this comes out in the first few scenes. (I did mention that this play rushes along, right?) And anyway Dietz has plenty of tricks up his sleeves in this one.

Halena Kays directs a very good cast who do what they can with underdeveloped characters in a play that recreates the emotional feel of its genre but never really lets us close enough to anyone to fully understand their motivations. (Example: we can understand why Chelle wants to get away from her situation, but how on earth does this woman hit upon the notion of an assassin?) As always with Dietz, the dialogue is crisp and realistic; there just isn’t enough of it for the actors to carve out multi-dimensional characters.

Lizzie Bracken’s two-story set feels excessive for much of the play, though Halena does make good use of it and it comes in handy near the end. Her design is sleek and ultra-modern, frequently using Jason Lynch’s lights to effect scene and mood changes. Rick Sims’ sound design is also critical, especially in scene changes (of which there are many, but Halena handles them well). 

I usually really like Dietz, but this play mostly felt a bit flat. I was never truly drawn into its mystery nor thrilled by its revelations. It is a fascinating concept, but a great playwright like Dietz should have done more with it.

How a Boy Falls is now playing at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, until Feb 29. The show runs approximately 75 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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