If playwright Nilaja Sun is looking for a subtitle to her award-winning play No Child ..., I would recommend The Importance of Being Earnest. (Er, maybe I need to come up with something else.)
No Child ... is a distillation of the eight years Sun spent as a teaching artist in one of New York City's poorest high schools. It's a solo performance piece with one actress playing a dozen or more adults and students.
As for the plot? Well it gets a little tricky here: No Child ... is about Sun leading a class of 10th-graders in a performance of the 1988 play Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which is about convicts in a 1700s Australian penal colony putting on the play The Recruiting Officer, by George Farquhar. (God, don't ask me to repeat that.)
But, really, No Child ... isn't a plot show. What we're getting is 70 intermissionless minutes of feelings, very noble intentions, heartbreaking realities and, above all, earnestness. Sun is utterly incapable of writing with irony; every single character lives with a very large heart on his or her sleeve. The plus side is that she avoids cloying sentimentality -- a more manipulative playwright would have stretched the parallels between the students and the convicts to a breaking point. On the other hand, the wide-eyed vulnerability shared by all the characters seems naïve, if not unsupported.
Like most plays written by artists who are primarily actors, No Child ... is more about its performance potential than its dramaturgy. This is abundantly clear in the play's weakest sections, when the children in the class fight: Far from listening to what they're fighting about, we're just trying to figure out who's saying what, as the actress speeds through a six-person fight made up of fragments of dialogue. It's more torture than tour de force. No Child ... is much stronger when Sun avoids the splashy stuff and allows a character to speak about life uninterrupted for a few quiet minutes.
Earnest, too, is a very apt description for the play's Pittsburgh premiere, at Open Stage Theatre. Director David Maslow and actress Rita Gregory approach the work with just about as much love and reverence as possible. I saw the show opening night, when tension levels are highest, and the blocking and lines seemed to me to be unsynched and a bit unfocused. As the run progresses, Gregory will only deepen in the role(s) and the earnest importance of No Child ... will really come through.
No Child ... continues through Feb. 21. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-394-3353