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Adult characters fare best in SF Playhouse’s ‘1 2 3’

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Dancing by Jeremy Kahn and Tristan Cunningham is a highlight of “1 2 3” at San Francisco Playhouse. (Courtesy Fei Cai)

The kids are not all right in East Coast playwright Lila Rose Kaplan’s world premiere, “1 2 3,” part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series of new works.

Kaplan’s three troubled sisters have to lie so often, and change their names so many times — and their schools and homes as well — that the main character, the fiercely angry middle sister (an entrancing Tristan Cunningham), is known mainly as “2.” (Bossy and conscientious “1,” played with suitably grim intensity by Jessica Bates, is the oldest; innocent “3,” an initially overly perky Devin Shacket, the youngest.)

It’s all because their parents are, by 2’s definition, terrorists; by 1’s definition, noble activists in pursuit of a Cause (we never learn the specifics of the Cause, but they sound like latter-day Weathermen). To little 3, they’re simply her much-missed parents.

In Act 1, when the girls are, respectively, 17, 15 and pre-teen, the parents are arrested and the girls shunted off to three different foster homes, only meeting at weekly breakfasts in a local family-run diner.

It’s at the diner that they meet the fourth character in Kaplan’s tightly (if faultily) structured drama, the affable teenage waiter Luke (an appealing Jeremy Kahn), who’s into ballroom dancing.

Unfortunately, Act 1 begins at an off-puttingly high pitch, both emotionally and, in the small space, acoustically, with the actresses trying too hard to be child-like, always a risk when adults play children.

Act 1 is also too long, with sisters 1 and 2 continually arguing back and forth about whether their neglectful parents are saints or sinners– a repetitive dialogue that’s neither revealing nor really what the play is about.

But when aggressively seductive 2 starts taking dance lessons from Luke — learning to cha cha, tango and waltz — the plot is set in motion. Dancing is a vibrant metaphor for the life journey that all four characters take.

In the much more successful Act 2, set 10 years later, we can see the after-effects of the girls’ dysfunctional childhood, and the legacy of their parents, in ways that feel organic and sad and truthful.

And, under Lauren English’s direction, the actors are able to create the complex adult characters and relationships that make the play so interesting.

A special treat throughout is watching Cunningham and Kahn dance (choreography by Sofia Ahmad).

The two acts of “1 2 3” need restructuring. Several alternate ways of telling the poignant story come to mind.

REVIEW

1 2 3
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Sept. 5
Tickets: $20
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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