A play about an aspiring playwright struggling to write a play can be a recipe for navel-gazing of the worst sort, but Places avoids this fate through its steady commitment to the fundamentals: believable characters, earnest dialogue, strong acting and artful (rather than artsy) direction.
Best friends Alex (Evan Mulrooney) and Jason (Michael Pearson) were once united by their love of theatre: Alex wrote the plays and Jason performed them. But Alex is crippled by insecurity and Jason is being forced by his parents to focus his energy on a more sensible profession.
Alex has decided to major in acting, even though he loves writing, because it makes him feel less vulnerable. But his heart isn't in it, and Rebecca (Rachel Estok), the no-nonsense stage manager in the play Alex is performing in, is frustrated with his lack of preparation.
Of course, Rebecca has her own secret unrealized passion for dancing, which Alex notices in the quiet moments when Rebecca thinks she's not being watched.
Mulrooney has a vulnerable, endearing Justin Long quality that serves him well as he interacts stiffly with his more free-spirited counterparts. Pearson brings charm, physicality and emotional depth to his role as a gifted artist slowly suffocated by the demands of his father. Estok imbues her character with strength and sensitivity.
The story moves along through clever use of a minimal set - each setpiece serves multiple duties - with stylish scene transitions and a lively score composed and played live by Stephen Ingram. His take on a common cellphone ringtone generates one of the many hearty laughs that leaven the play.
This is a classic coming-of-age story: young people, full of potential, taking their first steps into their adult lives but still afraid to listen to their hearts and follow their passions. Each character can see clearly what is wrong with the others but has a much harder time focusing inward.
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