Think about the last time you sat down on a city bench. Were you holding something, a coffee cup, maybe, or a cell phone, scrolling through your newsfeed and catching up on the day’s news? Were you with someone or alone? What did it sound like? What did you see? How long did you stay?
In her original play, “The Bench,” Carrie Mannino ’20 uses this routine setting as a backdrop for a series of short vignettes. “The Bench” follows the intertwining lives of eight high school students living in Pittsburgh and is largely comprised of short conversations between a rotating cast of characters, all of which take place on a nondescript bench on the commercial Walnut Avenue. In the play, the bench isn’t a destination; it’s a space to rest for a moment before the characters move onto to more important things. It is the setting of fleeting conversations, coffee dates, tense arguments uncomfortably thrust into the public eye. While the eponymous green bench flanking the center of the stage makes no move throughout the entire production, it may as well be the show’s ninth main character, guiding the characters toward each other and their goals.
Many of the characters fall back on the similar refrains: “we only have a couple of months left” and “soon everything will change.” These phrases, which combine dread, restlessness, excitement and nostalgia, drive the narrative forward despite the meandering nature of the vignette structure. A sense of quiet urgency pervades the play as the looming specter of college illuminates insecurities and fears in the characters’ lives. The play’s characters are often familiar: they are your best friend from high school, your next-door neighbor, the snarky kid in your math class, your unspoken high school crush. While the dialogue doesn’t always break new ground and sometimes feels overly familiar, it mostly feels realistic and avoids the common trope of attaching overly pretentious dialogue to young adult characters.
The cast boasts both veterans and newcomers to the Yale theater scene, comprised almost entirely of freshmen, excluding Sophia Eller ’17. This disparity is sometimes evident, some actors appearing more polished and experienced on stage than others, elevating their characters beyond high school archetypes. Stand-outs include Mohammed Hussari ’20, whose portrayal of Ezra, a wry, sarcastic, yet thoughtful high school senior is both hilarious and touching, while Eller builds an entire character out of almost no dialogue and a pair of earbuds. Due to the play’s structure and the limited scope of some actors’ roles, some of the characters lack depth. Similarly, the tone varies scene by scene and because of this, occasionally misses a beat and feels inconsistent. However, the majority of the time, the actors and Mannino juggle the constant scene changes and challenge of establishing character in two-minute segments with thought and care.
The vignettes often veer on the shorter side and vary in tone from quiet meditations to loud confrontations. However, Mannino’s material works best when it is given space to breathe. In one particularly affecting scene toward the end of the play, a misunderstanding compels two boys to reflect on the way their religions have informed their personal identities. In small stretches of dialogue like this one, Mannino captures what makes teenagers’ speech so unique. They walk the line between childhood and adulthood, home and college, at once tagging Instagram photos and contemplating the nature of change.
The play will open on Ivy Day, the day the Yale Class of 2021 receives their acceptance letters. Within this context, the play’s subject matter seems especially poignant. The freshman actors are passing on the torch to the next generation of awkward teens, embarrassed by their mother’s loud voices and their own nervous outbursts. While our lives may no longer be ruled by the Common App and adolescent acne, even in college, we cannot escape the feeling of things constantly changing around us. Despite its shortcomings, “The Bench” accurately captures the conflict between the excitement of constantly being propelled forward and the comfort of stopping to breathe for a moment on a city bench.