Northlight Theatre's 'How a Boy Falls' proves gripping, but thin

  • Sam (Sean Parris) and Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) pretend to be on their phones once they realize that they're being watched in Steven Dietz's world-premiere thriller "How a Boy Falls" for Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

    Sam (Sean Parris) and Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) pretend to be on their phones once they realize that they're being watched in Steven Dietz's world-premiere thriller "How a Boy Falls" for Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Northlight Theatre

 
 
Updated 2/4/2020 3:53 PM

"How a Boy Falls" -- ★ ★

Steven Dietz's thriller "How a Boy Falls" is unquestionably gripping in Northlight Theatre's super-sleek world premiere. But lasting just under 80 minutes without intermission, the drama also feels rushed as it speeds toward a too-tidy conclusion.

 

"How a Boy Falls" begins in a Bay Area coffee shop with Mitch (Travis A. Knight) noticing that the newly relocated and unemployed Sam (Sean Parris) has been actively checking out a woman sitting by herself. With Mitch's encouragement, Sam crosses a threshold to speak to her.

Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) mistakenly assumes that Sam is the hitman she agreed to meet. Sam runs with this underworld identity so he can get to know Chelle better.

Paul (Tim Decker) and Miranda (Michelle Duffy) await news about the fate of their son in "How a Boy Falls" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
Paul (Tim Decker) and Miranda (Michelle Duffy) await news about the fate of their son in "How a Boy Falls" at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Northlight Theatre

Chelle, it turns out, is in a world of trouble. She's an au pair accused of negligence in the falling death of Alexander, the 4-year-old son of software tech moguls Paul (Tim Decker) and Miranda (Michelle Duffy). But all is not what it seems, especially with so many characters driven by revenge.

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"How a Boy Falls" keeps the audience guessing, though part of that has to do with the play's foggy focus in terms of designating a main protagonist. Not knowing if we're to trust Sam or Chelle initially builds suspense, since it's unclear if they're sharing truths or spinning lies.

Sam (Sean Parris), left, is encouraged to approach a mystery woman in a cafe by Mitch (Travis A. Knight) in Northlight Theatre's "How a Boy Falls."
Sam (Sean Parris), left, is encouraged to approach a mystery woman in a cafe by Mitch (Travis A. Knight) in Northlight Theatre's "How a Boy Falls." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Northlight Theatre

But once all is explained, "How a Boy Falls" feels like Dietz skimped on character motivations and back stories just to keep audiences off balance.

If the script ultimately disappoints, Northlight's fine cast and production crew led by director Halena Kays do all they can to ratchet up the suspense. Set designer Lizzie Bracken and lighting designer Jason Lynch work well in tandem to suggest multiple locations ranging from a cliff-side mansion to a fashionable park. Izumi Inaba's contemporary costumes colorfully pop in front of Bracken's modern, slate gray unit set.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Even with Dietz's lightly sketched characterizations, the cast shines overall. Slaughter-Mason shares a wide-eyed sense of both empathy and distrust as Chelle, while Decker is unsettling as the suave and smarmy Paul (especially with his rage-filled outbursts).

Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) mistakes Sam (Sean Parris) for a hit man in Steven Dietz's world-premiere thriller "How a Boy Falls."
Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) mistakes Sam (Sean Parris) for a hit man in Steven Dietz's world-premiere thriller "How a Boy Falls." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Northlight Theatre

"How a Boy Falls" marks Northlight's second world premiere of a Dietz play, the first being his two-character 1993 AIDS drama "Lonely Planet." But "How a Boy Falls" isn't entirely a happy reunion, since it comes off more as a season outline for a TV suspense series rather than a self-contained stage thriller.

• • •

Location: Northlight Theatre at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org

Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee Feb. 19), 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (also 7 p.m. Feb. 23); through Feb. 29

Tickets: $30-$89

Running time: About 80 minutes without intermission

Parking: Free adjacent lots and parking garage

Rating: For teens and older; includes mature language and subject matter

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