'The Trees' review — aimless new play doesn't ground itself

Read our review of The Trees, a new Off-Broadway play written by Agnes Borinsky and directed by Tina Satter, playing at Playwrights Horizons through March 19.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

In the first few minutes of The Trees, Agnes Borinsky sows a seed of a potentially intriguing story. While in a leafy park outside their father’s home in Connecticut, siblings Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) and David (Jess Barbagallo) find themselves inexplicably rooted in place. And not figuratively.

Like a couple of saplings, the two have actually been dug into the earth – an effect achieved through a simple theatrical sleight as two small circular trap doors descend. They can’t move. After the initial shock, they’re not so bothered by that. “It’s weird, but I’m fine,” David, a filmmaker, tells his soon-to-be-ex boyfriend Jared (Sean Donovan). The brother and sister don’t seek help from anyone — not town officials, medical professionals, or tree surgeons.

So what’s next? Is it a show about accepting whatever life throws our way, no matter how bizarre? Is it the setup for an absurd existential outing? Is it a riff on Waiting for Godot, a meditation on finding one’s place or purpose in life, this time observed through the perspective of the tree mentioned in that play? Good questions.

“Maybe we just needed to stop, you know?” says Sheila. “Maybe everything just needed to stop.” Maybe. But waiting for the play to branch into a coherent and compelling narrative proves to be an exercise in frustration. What emerges is a group portrait of odd-lot characters drawn to Sheila and David, or at least to what’s befallen them.

Among them is Baba, the sibs’ elderly Polish grandmother (Danusia Trevino). She comes prepared to keep them safe, including protecting them from wolves that prowl this neck of the woods. Baba sets up a tent and lights a campfire. She'll now live her life outside with her grandkids.

Meanwhile, obnoxiously self-obsessed Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto), Sheila’s longtime friend, presumably comes by to check on her pal. But Charlotte spends most of her time crabbing about caring for her mother before quickly leaving.

Saul (Max Gordon Moore), a rabbi with a small congregation in Cleveland, arrives convinced that what’s happened to the siblings is a miracle. “I thought it might be an intervention. In the world. A shift. In history.” In a strange twist, Saul uproots himself from Ohio. He and Sheila embark on a loving relationship and manage to raise a family together. It’s not going out on a limb to consider it a wild turn of events. Seems there’s someone out there for everyone.

Terry, a vendor who visits the park, initially seems inconsequential enough. He’s just hawking pretzels, chips, and bottled water. But Terry’s interest extends beyond snacks. He becomes the driving force for building a mall – with a food court and a Nordstrom – right where Sheila and David are planted. Jared points out that the brother and sister have no legal recourse because they’re trees. They’re left facing an uncertain future. Then again, aren’t we all?

Tina Satter directs the mixed-bag production that runs 105 minutes without intermission. Performances range from fine to so-so. Parker Lutz’s set features clean lines, curved steps, and tree-like columns, lit dramatically by Thomas Dunn. Enver Chakartash’s costumes give off a bright tie-dye convention vibe.

“I’m not great at writing plot… Plots are a bit ridiculous,” Borinsky writes in an author’s note for this Playwrights Horizons production. In the end, it's unclear what the author is chasing, maybe intentionally. Either way, it’s hard to see the forest through The Trees.

The Trees is at Playwrights Horizons through March 19.

Photo credit: The cast of The Trees. (Photo by Chelcie Parry)

Originally published on

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