Review: "Our Very Own Carlin McCullough" at the Geffen Playhouse

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

What does actress Amanda Peet know about playwriting? Actually a lot. In her new world premiere play at the Geffen Playhouse, she tells quite a good story with director Tyne Rafaeli and a talented cast.

The show opens with a scruffy tennis coach Jay (Joe Tippett NBC's Rise) in his 30s and a precocious 10-year-old girl Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison). Raised by a single mom Cyn (Mamie Gummer in HBO’s True Detective and also Meryl Streep’s daughter), Carlin takes up the game of tennis at the local park courts, and Jay notices her talent. Once a tennis star and now a bartender, he believes he can nourish Carlin’s tennis potential.

Set designer Tim Mackabee does a great job transforming the small and intimate theatre into a tennis club, apartment kitchen, and hotel room. While music and sound designer Lindsay Jones transports us to the tennis courts with sounds of balls being hit off rackets and against a backboard.

This is Peet’s second professionally produced play and director Tyne Ragaeli third play (She directed Actually and Ironbound) at The Geffen Playhouse. Together they brilliantly don’t make this a Lolita story of an adult male’s obsession with an underage girl. Peet’s story is similar to Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. We learn Carlin never knew her “sperm donor” father and enjoys Jay’s playfulness, kindness, and attention.

Harrison plays her age well, she jumps on beds, pouts when upset and shines on the stage. She is determined to win every match to receive more accolades, as Joe guides her through the highs and lows of competitive tennis.

Tippett is such a likable and fun actor that he gains the adulation of the audiences within the first 10 minutes of the show. He literally gives the shirt off his back for this young protege and she lovingly wears it. She likes his male smell, not in a sexual way, just in a wanting a male presence to balance all of her mother’s estrogen.

 Joe Tippett and Mamie Gummer in  Our Very Own Carlin McCullough  (Chris Whitaker)

Joe Tippett and Mamie Gummer in Our Very Own Carlin McCullough (Chris Whitaker)

Momma Cyn’s only focus in life is her daughter. Work is secondary. As Carlin rises up the junior tennis ladder, Jay tells Cyn “I want to develop her and spend more time with her.”  He instills “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you win,” yet really just wants her to have fun. Gummer portrays Cyn as one of those screaming parent’s who lives vicariously through their child’s success and dreams of fame and fortune.

The three go on road trips together to various tennis tournaments. They sleep in the same hotel room to save money (both Cyn and Jay are broke), celebrate victories and become a “family.”

Peet brushed up on tennis while writing this story, having Carlin lock herself in the bathroom before every match, while Coach Jay reassures her that it’s normal to be nervous “Even Djokovic puked before every final.” Jay insists Carlin carry her own gear like Rafa (Nadel), the “King of Clay,”  and by the age of 12, Carlin becomes the “Princess of Clay.” At this level, college tennis scouts start watching her matches.

Every show must have a villain, and Salif the Stanford University tennis scout (Tyee Tilghman) convinces Cyn that “There is nothing normal about Carlin” and that she is good enough to get a scholarship to The Academy (American tennis coach Nick Bollettieri has a famous one). He informs her that it’s not good for Carlin to only hit with her coach, she needs to hit with all levels of players her age, planting a seed of doubt in Cyn’s head about Joe. He also airs a suspicious observation that Coach Joe is very “hands-on” with Carlin and it is making people around the tennis complex misinterpret their coach/player relationship.

When Cyn looks into The Academy and they accept her daughter, she makes up her mind to send her daughter off and away from her beloved coach.

There is a heated argument between the two adults, with Joe shocked and disgusted by the accusations and Cyn’s decision. He is willing “to take a bullet for her (Carlin).” He adores her, but not in a sexual way, more in a male nurturing way, that Carlin so desperately needs. They have their own secret jokes and communion.

Joe begs and pleads for her not to “drag her all over the world, while using her to get rich parents to enroll their kids in The Academy.” He saw this happen when he was young and knows that The Academy is “so competitive that it is impossible to be a kid. They churn out kids hoping they rise to the top, while many plateau out at 17.”

Mom believes her daughter defies all the data, as Joe utters “she is just your child, not your meal ticket.” Cyn replies “What is she to you Joe, a service project?”    

After intermission, we learn about injury, disappointment and the coming of age as pre-teen Carlin is now a 17 years old young woman (Caroline Heffernan). Salif who redeems himself in the end has a line in the play “a successful player is ‘lighting in a bottle’ with three key elements - the right player, right coach and right parents.” It's extremely difficult, perhaps bordering on the impossible to achieve, yet if you do it’s golden.

Carlin will never be the next Serena or Venus Williams. Would she have if Cyn kept her with Coach Joe? Peet and Ragaeli continue the integrity of the last scene so it thankfully doesn’t become a #MeToo moment.

If you are a parent of a child involved in sports, this is a play you will not want to miss.

The world premiere of OUR VERY OWN CARLIN McCULLOUCH by Amanda Peet continues through July 29, 2018 nightly (except Mondays). Tickets: $60-$85, available in person at the Geffen Box Office, by calling (310) 208-2028 or online at geffenplayhouse.org. The run features the Geffen's popular Talk Back Tuesdays, giving theater lovers a chance to engage in a deeper conversation about the play and the process. Rush tickets for each day's performance are made available to the general public 30 minutes before showtime at the box office at $35 General / $10 Student. The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. 90024.