Nature and nurture are opposing forces in Henry Murray’s intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying “Treefall,” now on the Walker stage at New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Flynn, August and Craig live together, isolated on a mountaintop in a cinematically post-apocalyptic world where everything is dirty, resources are dwindling and sunlight is lethal.
Against the consistent but never really explained threat of what sounds like very large dying trees crashing to ground, they carry on a charade of nuclear family roles. The two older boys — post-puberty but not yet adults — are faux parents, aping phrases and mannerisms they barely remember.
Flynn (Evan Johnson) is the “daddy” who dons a filthy tie and sits and the cardboard breakfast table reading the same tattered newspaper, over and over you have to assume. August (Josh Schell) reluctantly dons a dress, wig and heels — relics from Flynn’s mother, who went on reconnaissance and never returned — and offers his best June Cleaver.
Together they are raising Craig (Sal Mattos), a child of undetermined age, who alternates between throwing juvenile tantrums while speaking in the precocious voice of his doll, and exploring an awakening sexuality with incestuous overtones.
Into their already crumbling structure comes Bug (Corinne Robkin), a misanthrope wannabe, whose very existence strains relationships between the youths and raises issues of gender and affection identities they had not yet considered.
Murray’s premise is at once provocative and clichéd. The theme of the stranger disrupting the status quo is well worn. Adding the facet of sexual orientation poses more challenging questions. If you live in a mono-gendered world, is homosexuality unnatural? What do you do when presented with an alternative lifestyle option?
Much of the connective tissue that would provide context in “Treefall” is, like the falling trees, stated but unexplored. You know the plague has come, but you are not sure when or why. You sense the characters are young, but true ages are not given, even though just a few years can make a critical difference in character motivations.
The youthful cast does their best with Murray’s uneven material. Johnson and Schell waltz defensively, one desperately wanting to hold things together, the other looking for an exit. Robkin is a feisty, self-medicating independent, neither trusting nor needing others.
Mattos creates the most complex character. He is petulant, manipulative and so genuinely annoying that he seems to willingly risk alienating the audience right up to the final moments.
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 27
Contact: (415) 861-8972; www.nctcsf.org