Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis & Brad Heberlee in Make Believe

Review of Make Believe at Second Stage Theater

Brittany Crowell
Brittany Crowell

As we grow up, do we lose our ability to make believe? Or do we merely get better at the nuances of pretending and master the skill of mirroring the way we believe ourselves to fit in the world?

In Bess Wohl's Make Believe, now playing at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, the Conlee children face two tragedies, the departure of their mother under unknown circumstances and the death of a family member 32 years later, reuniting them.

We get to see what has become of these children, how their quirks and talents have matured into adulthood. There is more in common there than one might think, and Wohl writes beautiful connections between the expressions of childhood play and our matured coping mechanisms, expertly set by director Michael Greif.

At one point the youngest of the siblings, Carl, who spent most of his childhood being siphoned into the role of family "dog" howls in grief at the family loss. While he does so, the lights (designer Ben Stanton) shift and we are suddenly reminded (in a goosebump-inducing moment) of a young, unspoken Carl crawling the floor and letting out a mighty canine yowl while playing family with his brother and sisters and wondering if their actual family will return for them.

Wohl's writing beautifully transitions us from the 1980s to present day. It is so easy to believe that the people we see onstage are the children we've been following for the last hour, only in their adult form. Actor Samantha Mathis captures the neuroses and responsibility of young Kate, but with slightly more flounce and desperation. Brad Heberlee ages Carl, the young boy who doesn't speak, into an awkward and socially abrasive yet sympathetic adult. Susannah Flood is a standout as an aged Addie, struggling to overcome her family history in the journey of raising her own daughter. 

The children, played by Casey Hilton, Maren Heary, Ryan Foust and Harrison Fox perform with such precision and gumption that you almost forget you are watching young actors. But, you can't help but be reminded of that fact as they take on the roles of mother and father; wife, husband, baby and dog; creating a farce more revealing and truthful than a realistic portrayal could ever be.

Make Believe will greatly endear you to the Conlee children, both in their young and full-grown forms. Wohl, Greif and the design and production team encourage you to don a youthful perspective, as the child is still very much alive in all of us, it's just the games of pretend we are playing that have changed.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Make Believe is a rich and moving contemporary drama — the kind that builds itself from fragments that could just as easily fail to bind. With the help of a toy chest of tricks Ms. Wohl has in store, they do bind here; her formal daring, her precise calibration of humor and despair, her confidence and anger and empathy, all mingled, lift "Make Believe" into the realm where even naturalism becomes a great mystery."
Jesse Green for New York Times

"It's the oldest strategy in the dramatic playbook: the "retrospective" plot, in which a buried secret is dug up and brought into the light. This most typical of storytelling tactics relies on surprise, but over the millennia the structure itself has become overfamiliar. That's why Bess Wohl's Make Believe has such freshness: The writer has found a new way to cut old cloth."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

"Bette Davis once said that old age isn't for sissies. Neither is childhood, as playwright Bess Wohl well knows. Anyone who had a childhood needs to see Wohl's new play, Make Believe. And that goes double for anyone who remembers having an unhappy childhood, which, again, is anyone with a memory. Wohl's funny, touching and ultimately very disturbing new play about a troubled family opened Thursday at Second Stage."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap

"As she demonstrated with her acclaimed Small Mouth Sounds, a play that featured barely any dialogue, Bess Wohl is one of our most adventuresome playwrights. She stumbles, however, with her newest effort, Make Believe, receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Second Stage Theater. The play's first half, set in the 1980s, depicts the interactions of four siblings, ages 5-10. In an unusual move considering that children are most often portrayed by adult actors onstage, they're played here by actual age-appropriate kids; in the second half, we're introduced to their present-day adult counterparts. But the ambitious concept doesn't quite pay off."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

Originally published on

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