Off-Broadway Review: “In a Word”

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

If America – and the global community – has learned anything since January 20, 2017 it is the message that “words matter.” Words – spoken and left unspoken – play the central role in Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre’s Studio Theatre. Words – comforting and unacceptable – are stored on a shelf in Fiona’s (Laura Ramadei) and Guy’s (Jose Joaquin Perez) emotionally sterile home. The other words – those spoken between the couple two years after their seven-year-old son Tristan’s (Justin Mark) disappearance – are laced with anger, resentment, despair, and mistrust.

Tristan is kidnapped from Fiona’s car when she stops for gas after being placed on a leave of absence from her teaching job. The details surrounding Tristan’s disappearance are revealed over time in this non-linear somewhat surreal play and it would require a spoiler alert to disclose those chilling details. It is enough to say that Tristan’s adoption has been less than trouble free. Guy’s friend Andy (Justin Mark) knows a girl who has a kid and, at Guy’s urging, he and Fiona agree to adopt the twenty-four-month-old boy who, they discover, has ADHD. As he ages, this diagnosis places a strain upon the couple and exacerbates the couple’s pre-existing dysfunction and deep ennui.

Over Tristan’s seven years with Fiona and Guy, his mother claims he has always been “fine.” His father admits their son has been “difficult.” In a series of scenes that alternate between the past and the present, “In a Word” explores the dynamics of loss: loss of love; loss of self-worth; loss of caring; and loss of future. With a hefty sprinkling of magical elements into the realism of the narrative, this engaging play connects deeply with the emotions and raises rich and enduring questions.

Whether Fiona and Guy can reconnect two years after Tristan’s disappearance is addressed in one of Fiona’s final monologues: “And in the space between my heart and my lungs Between a beat and a breath, it hits you, meaning it occurs to you like a ton of bricks: Worse case [sic] scenario is, this is it. Just me, myself, and Guy: Nobody here but us chickens, We cowards. Worse case [sic] scenario is: he was right under my nose and I lost him.”

Under Tyne Rafaeli’s steady hand, the action moves forward with clarity and precision. The audience always knows whether the action is in the present or the past or, perhaps, somewhere in-between. The cast is uniformly believable, delivering authentic performances, exhibiting real conflicts that drive the intriguing plot. Although the issues raised here, the themes addressed, are not new, Ms. Yee’s handling of these important concepts gives them a freshness and a mystery that is agreeable and worthwhile.

Oona Curley’s scenic and lighting design and Stowe Nelson’s sound design heighten the magical realism and the movement between present and past. Objects from the past remain on stage in the present and take on significant meaning. In the last scene, Fiona reiterates her doubt about the future: “I need to find who did it. ‘Cause if I can’t get justice, it’s just us—(corrects) Just me.” Whether the couple can survive this tragedy is the question Ms. Yee struggles with and invites the audience to grapple with her.


“In a Word” stars Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez, and Laura Ramadei. The creative team includes scenic and lighting design by Oona Curley, costumes by Andrea Hood, and sound by Stowe Nelson. Production photos by Hunter Canning.

“In a Word” runs through Saturday July 8 on the following schedule: Wednesday – Friday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. with an additional performance on July 2 at 8:00 p.m. Cherry Lane Theatre is located at 38 Commerce Street (three blocks south of Christopher Street, just west of Seventh Avenue – accessible from 1 train to Christopher Street). Tickets are $25, available at 212-352-3101 or Running time is 80 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark & Jose Joaquin Perez. Credit: Hunter Canning.