By Christopher Popple
Returning to United Solo for its tenth anniversary season, Best Adaptation award winner “The Tall Boy” elevates Kay Boyle’s short story “The Lost” to greater heights.
Tandy Cronyn sits at a wooden desk littered with letters, documents and memos, poring over her work. World War II has reached its conclusion, and has left a myriad of problems to be addressed by U.S. soldiers, like the one Ms. Cronyn is playing. Working at a displaced persons camp, Ms. Cronyn’s character is burdened with the task of finding homes for child refugees. The story concerns three boys, to whom the U.S. military at the camp have grown attached. They arrived with hope in their hearts, having been promised that they’ll be sent to live in the United States. Ms. Cronyn’s job is to tell them the terrible truth about where they’ll actually end up. The boys react to their fates in different ways, but the one who takes it the hardest is the tallest boy in the bunch.
Ms. Cronyn convincingly sells the exhaustion of a heavily burdened, pencil‑pushing U.S. soldier. In the story, the military places the soldier in a role for which she openly admits she is ill‑equipped. Despite putting on a friendly face for the children, she is too far out of her element, and her environment has left her jaded. There is nuance in the portrayal of her trauma, ranging from coping through humor to brief fits of rage, such as when she throws a book of Nazi ideology on the floor in the middle of her work. Ms. Cronyn’s exceptional emotional range is one of the driving forces of this performance.
The three boys are also portrayed by Ms. Cronyn, whose voice has the versatility to play four characters at once. The tall boy, Johnny, speaks with a deep American drawl the protagonist likens to Elmer Fudd. The youngest boy, Angelo, squeaks out every line with a voice that is helium incarnate. Then there’s the fourteen‑year‑old boy in the middle, who smokes cigarettes, complains and picks fights like a Holden Caulfield with post‑traumatic stress disorder. The middle child’s voice blends with the tall one’s at points, but for the most part the boys are easy to tell apart and have a lot of personality and depth.
“The Tall Boy” is well‑written; every comedic moment feels appropriately timed and never detracts from the drama. Poignant themes surrounding a post‑WWII Europe are explored through engaging and descriptive dialogue. There are several evocative quotes throughout the show, most notably the way the soldier describes revealing to the boys the reality of their situation as “driving nails into the coffin,” saying that “the sooner you drive [the nails] in, the closer they get to living in the real world.” I’ve seen many war stories at United Solo, and it is memorable quotes like these that help performances like this one stand out from the rest.
If there is anything to criticize about “The Tall Boy,” it would be the way the dialogue between characters is presented. When the boys enter the story, all the soliloquies are tossed aside. Scenes involve up to four characters at a time, and eventually the show begins to feel like the reading of a short story rather than a theatre performance. Having one person juggle so many characters at once also means that some scenes move at a snail’s pace.
“The Tall Boy” is an emotional and bittersweet examination of the struggles refugees face long after the wars are won and the flags are waved. Some are lost, some are found, and some don’t want to be found.
Ms. Cronyn sheds a tear for the lost, and the audience responds in kind.
“The Tall Boy”
Performed by Tandy Cronyn
Written by Simon Bent
September 28 at 2 PM
Photo credit: Trix Rosen
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CHRISTOPHER POPPLE is an aspiring writer living in New Jersey. He graduated Monmouth University with a degree in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Alongside his career and collaboration with All About Solo, he works on various writing projects in his free time.