Theater review: Teenagers connect in ‘I and You’

Two extraordinary performers slap our theatrical expectations as they burrow into our hearts and minds in “I and You,” an invigorating drama about seizing moments.

This latest thought-provoking offering in The Repertory Theatre’s Studio series is the kind of shared human experience that leaves the audience buzzing and reminds us of what can be achieved in a darkened intimate space. This is contemporary theater at its very best.

In the intimate confines of a teenage girl’s bedroom, playwright Laura Gunderson explores the mysteries of the universe through a humorous and emotional youthful perspective.

Caustic and cynical, Caroline (Danielle Carlacci) has a genetic liver ailment, is on a transplant list, and is now too sick to attend regular school. Good-natured classmate Anthony (Reynaldo Piniella) interrupts her sanctuary one day to work on their English project, a report on Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Her life hasn’t really started, after dealing with mortality issues for most of it, while he’s seemingly on top of the world -- popular basketball player and A student. The unlikely duo eventually let their guards down and spill secrets, connecting as two teenagers emerging from their adolescent cocoon.

Gunderson’s dialogue sings — a crafty mix of millennial speak, waxing poetic on Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and old-school communication techniques. Peppered with contemporary slang and using electronic devices on hand, the exchanges feel as current as today’s status update. She could have been eavesdropping outside the door.

Carlacci and Piniella easily slip into their teen roles. Two New York-based stage actors with modest screen credits, the pair could be mistaken for kids walking around a mall. They seamlessly work in tandem, doing the show’s heavy lifting, and prodding us to see the world through their eyes.

Their snappy banter feels fresh as they steer through the mood swings the drama’s framework demands. At first, Caroline appears more one-note, with her sheltered, limited experience, but her bossy, prickly exterior reveals a vulnerability underneath. The more mannered Carlacci gives a subtle, sharp performance that sneaks up on us.

Piniella’s Anthony is all gangly boy, perplexed by girls and passionate about jazz. Smart and gregarious, he comes alive while unlocking the meaning of Whitman’s words. Piniella is a glib, natural talent who doesn’t strike a false note.

Under Jane Page’s shrewd direction, the duo digs deep into reservoirs of feelings and displays a raw element this carefully structured work needs to succeed.

As she did with the stunning “4,000 Miles,” Page disarmingly guides us on a journey that takes different turns.

As usual, the production values are first-rate as well. The messy bedroom set designed by Eric Barker pops with visual delights, enhanced by John Wylie’s delightful lighting work, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design conveys the different tones of electronic communications.

Propelled by two spirited performances, “I And You” re-awakens the coming-of-age feelings that we all experience, while reinforcing the power of connecting with a fellow human being, whether it lasts for an evening or a lifetime.

"I and You"

  • When: Now through Nov. 15
  • Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  • Where: Emerson Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis
  • Information and tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org