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Review: In ‘Make Believe,’ Four Children Meet Their Inner Adults

The story they (and we) begin to put together from these messages isn’t pretty. I won’t spoil it except to say that what at first seems to be a nostalgic comedy of underparenting isn’t. The children’s play isn’t idle or fantastical; in fact, we gradually realize, at some point it stopped being play. When Chris shows up with a bag of groceries — ketchup, bacon, Twizzlers — they aren’t plastic. How did he get them?

Despite always being several steps behind the plot — a wonderful and rare feeling — we get to know the Conlees very well. Defying Fields, Ms. Wohl has chosen not only to work with children but also to depend on them as expressive actors. She has come close to the heart of a truth about childhood: They know how to “play” others even if they can’t play themselves. Somehow Ryan Foust (Chris), Maren Heary (Kate), Casey Hilton (Addie) and Harrison Fox (Carl) are both adorable and terrifying.

And then, in a beautifully managed effect, they disappear; 32 years elapse and Ms. Wohl moves into dramatic overdrive without stripping gears. We are now firmly rooted in a specific moment — a memorial service, though it’s not clear whose — and in a new genre. The second half of the play is one long, continuous scene, booby-trapped with surprises.

In it we meet four adults with the same names as the vanished children: Kate (Samantha Mathis), Addie (Susannah Flood), Chris (Kim Fischer) and Carl (Brad Heberlee). It doesn’t take long to see how they do — and in one crucial case don’t — align, perfectly but unpredictably, with the earlier cast. Anxious Kate is now a bossy gastroenterologist; Addie has made a career of fantasy play as a television actress. What Carl the dog became I leave for you to discover.

But those are merely the incidental pleasures of a play that wears its comedy like spandex, revealing more than it hides. As we take in what has happened to the Conlees, we sense the scope expanding from a miniature portrait of children coping with the adult world to a much larger canvas on which adults forever remain the children they once were.

For Addie, who told her doll not to mind grown-ups because they “aren’t real anyway,” this determinism is devastating. “It’s impossible to do something you never had modeled for you,” she says.

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