Our Very Own Carlin McCullough
Review by Willard Manus

OUR VERY OWN CARLIN McCULLOUGH Who should control the life of a young tennis prodigy is the question that lies at the heart of OUR VERY OWN CARLIN McCULLOUGH, Amanda Peet’s drama which is now in a world-premiere run at the Geffen Playhouse. The play, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, came out of the Geffen’s development program and is the rare (and welcome) example of a major L.A. theatre taking a chance on a new work. When we first meet the prodigy, 10-year-old Carlin (Abigail Dylan Harrison), she is being coached by Jay (Joe Tippett), a failed pro player who sees her potential and is willing to work for next to nothing to aid her career. The third side of the play’s triangle is Cyn (Mamie Gummer), Carlin’s mom. A woman who was abandoned by her husband (known sarcastically to her and Carlin as “the sperm donor”), Cyn struggles mightily to get through life. Money is tight, she’s on her own, and as she admits at one point, “I’m in a committed relationship with alcohol.”

Cyn’s a bit of an emotional wreck but she sublimates her desperation by devoting herself to Carlin’s budding career, to such a degree that it approaches pathology. She becomes an over-bearing stage mom, not only involving herself in every aspect of her daughter’s life but trying to run it as well. This puts her on a collision course with Jay, especially when it comes time for decisions to be made about Carlin’s future.

The triggering mechanism is when a Stanford University coach, Salif (Tyee Tilghman), spots Carlin in action and suggests that the girl should be sent to a well-known tennis academy where intensive coaching and training might benefit her. If she got through that four-year program she might be offered a tennis scholarship to a prestigious university like Stanford–-or even a pro contract. Cyn likes the idea of the academy: all of Carlin’s expenses would be paid and her game, presumably, would be taken to another level.

Bitterly opposing her is Jay, who hates the academy for the way it regiments its students, turns the game of tennis into a joyless, machinelike business. He also resents being dumped as her coach, cut off from the kid he has come to love over the years. Love, or at least lust, is the sub-text of his complicated relationship with Cyn. They’ve had powerful feelings for each other, but he has always struggled to keep his emotions in check, knowing how overly-needy and unstable she was. He also knew it would mess things up between him and Carlin if he went to bed with her mother. The girl, after all, saw him as a surrogate father, idealized him, really.

The dynamics of the complex relationships between the three main characters are intensified in act two, which takes place seven years later, when Carlin (now Caroline Heffernan) is seventeen. She’s been through a lot since we last saw her, having dropped out of the academy, given up tennis for a while, and grown into a sensitive young woman. But she has once again hooked up with Jay and started competing on the courts, showing enough skill to attract the attention of Salif, now head coach of the tennis program at a small mid-west college. He offers Carlin a full scholarship which Jay doesn’t think she should take, insisting that she still has the potential to win a scholarship to a major university. Cyn, of course, disagrees vehemently with him. The explosive confrontations and revelations at the conclusion of the play are as surprising as they are stunning, especially when the exasperated and tearful Carlin bellows, “I hate fucking tennis!”

The Geffen’s production, which features Tim Mackabee’s sliding sets (kitchen, motel rooms, tennis courts), and can boast of superior acting and directing, does Peet’s gritty story proud. (Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Call 310-208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.org)