'This Beautiful Future' review — whose future is it, anyway?

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

This Beautiful Future is a peculiar yet quietly compelling portrait of two teenagers, a French girl and a German soldier, chasing a connection — and a roll in the hay — amid wartime. Over its compact 75 minutes, the play by Rita Kalnejais, an Australian writer based in London, lands with a modest impact as it pulls off a sly feat. It feels both very familiar (young love among the ruins) and disarmingly fresh (credit the unusual framework). 

The setting is Chartres, France in August 1944, a pivotal point in World War II. That fact is spelled out not once but twice. It's noted in the program and in a supertitle projected at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where this production follows a run at Theatrelab in January. Talk of bombings and Hitler and lines drawn onto a girl's legs as a nod to fashion all fit squarely enough into the summer of '44. 

That said, references to Law & Order and snippets of hits by Fleetwood Mac ("Dreams") and Adele ("Someone Like You") sung by two amiable seniors on stage observing the teens' every move from a distance suggest there's more afoot. But what? Who are these voyeurs with their karaoke microphones? The young duo decades down the road? An Everytwosome? Whose future is it, anyway? 

There are various questions as Elodie (Francesca Carpanini) and Otto (Uly Schlesinger) meet. The script indicates that Otto is 16 going on 17, while Elodie is a year older. The pair echos Liesl and Rolf in The Sound of Music. They're rendezvousing at an abandoned home that belonged to a doomed Jewish family, which has become a place to escape the fighting outside for a romantic tryst. Scenic designer Frank J. Oliva conjures the place with a bed, a faucet, a wash basin, and a window. Lighting designer Stacey Derosier bathes the snug space in shadow.

Boyish Otto has arrived first and stripped out of his Nazi uniform down to his underwear. Brash Elodie bursts in, her hands bloody and holding an egg rescued from a chicken coop attacked by a fox. In a bit of symbolism that speaks — rather, chirps — extremely loudly, the two vow to keep the egg safe until it hatches. Can new life rise amid so much death?

The answer arrives after Elodie and Otto have an evening of teasing pillow fights and unsettling pillow talk. Otto speaks bluntly about shooting dozens of people and rapturously about "Mr. Hitler" whose plan is for a "future where everyone's clean." Elodie is essentially unphased by his chilling admissions — that piece of the narrative puzzle feels unexplored.

The omnipresence of the onlookers, Angelina (Angelina Fiordellisi) and Austin (Austin Pendleton), is another mystery, one that actually helps glue you to the story. Presumably the elders are there to suggest the drama's timelessness. There's always another war, another young couple. The pair periodically interrupts the young duo to express coulda, woulda, shouldas ("I'd admit love at first sight is real," Angelina says; "I'd forget shame," Austin says) and sing ditties whose lyrics are seen on a screen. The songs underscore the action — sometimes subtly, sometimes too baldly. That includes a tune after an explosion.

Director Jack Serio guides an efficient staging. Pendleton, as always, brings buckets of appeal, but his performance is a bit rough around the edges. Fiordellisi ably toggles between vintage and contemporary pop songs. Carpanini and Schlesinger strike the right chords of naivete and desire. They're all upstaged in a moment that punctuates the play with a sweet final note.

This Beautiful Future is at the Cherry Lane Theatre through October 30. Get This Beautiful Future tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Austin Pendleton (back left), Uly Schlesinger, Angelina Fiordellisi, and Francesca Carpanini in This Beautiful Future. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

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