Spymaster With a Shopping Cart

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’ve seen over 200 productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte since I began covering the local scene in 1987, but only a handful have been as emotionally powerful as Danny, King of the Basement, now at the Wells Fargo Playhouse through Sunday. Grim realities pursue Danny Carter and his mom, Louise, who are fleeing from her latest bad decision when we first see them, an abusive boyfriend. That makes eight moves in the last two years, according to Danny, who keeps a more diligent count than Mom.

Danny’s disintegrating confidence in his mom and the wandering, often homeless nature of his life combine to push him into a world of fantasy – where he’s perpetually undercover as a juvenile spy, always an outsider looking in, always preparing for the next hasty getaway. So much always seems to be hanging by a thin thread in Canadian playwright David S. Craig’s penetrating script. To get their crummy new basement apartment, Louise has lied to the new landlady, pretending to be single and childless.

It’s only by speaking with Penny, the landlady’s daughter, that Danny discovers the deception. We can understand Danny’s wariness about his mom’s landing a job and not foolishly spending the little money that they have, since we’re a bit skeptical ourselves. While Danny remains uncertain about whether his mom will be able to make next month’s rent, his situation becomes more anguished because he’s actually making friends with Penny and another new neighbor, Angelo.

These other kids also have their woes. Angelo can’t seem to please his dad, whose presence is signaled by a lion’s roar that occasionally emanates from behind the entryway to his apartment. Dad might respect Angelo more once he scores his first hockey goal, but where is the confidence needed to score that goal going to come from?

Penny seems to be confident and affluent enough, but her parents are divorced and her dad is delinquent with support payments, spooking the cashflow. When Mom and Dad bicker over money, they do it through Penny, who carries two cell phones to field their calls. At one point, when she has both combatants on the line, Penny wraps the two phones together and drops them in a trashcan so they can duke it out.

Craig finds an even funnier way to defuse the seriousness of Angelo’s problems, as Danny and Penny perform a mock brain surgery that removes the bad thoughts ruining his self-confidence. Danny carries a shopping cart filled with carefully curated junk that becomes an eccentric toy chest that beautifully serves the kids’ pretend games.

The camaraderie cemented by this rollicking surgery unravels when Danny goes to school with his new chums. Instead of dutifully reading when his teacher calls on him, Danny cuts up and improvises his own story, earning himself a swift trip to the principal’s office. The smokescreen may bamboozle the new teacher, but Angelo and Penny see through it instantly – the collateral damage of Danny’s unsettled ramblings is a lingering illiteracy. It will be cataclysmic when Danny’s new chums call him out on it.

Beneath all of his spymaster tale-spinner façade, Danny is deeply ashamed – of his mom and of himself. He prides himself in being able to make friends, even best friends, in the space of a day. Yet Danny has moved around so much that he has never truly realized that the friends he makes can be a support system. That’s the deeply moving aha moment we witness here.

The only parent or teacher we actually see onstage here is Danny’s mom, but she is so flawed, so prone to unwise decisions and failure, that we’re apt to see her as under Danny’s care rather than the other way around. It’s a world of children we’re seeing, with adult intrusions but hardly any adult perspective or authority. With adults portraying all of these roles, there’s a fascinating crossroads of empathy that makes this a special experience, even for the ImaginOn fantasy palace.

Under Mark Sutton’s finely nuanced direction, the cast immerses itself into these kids and their interactions without regressing into them. Even the lighter, sillier moments aren’t tainted with excess mimicry. I was especially impressed with Scott Miller’s rendering of Danny, his guarded slouch persisting even when he resolves to do something remarkably brave. Danny’s vulnerability remains near the surface no matter how merry the moment, so his sudden disintegration comes as no surprise.

As Penny, Veda Covington must change from her kid-on-the-street self to her daughter personality each time one of her cellphones rings. There’s a little of the spoiled brat to the kid, but as the ambassador between her bickering parents, she isn’t always the submissive child. Sometimes she’s the real grownup. With Angelo, the differences are perhaps more subtle for Rahsheem Shabazz. There are different shades of inferiority that he feels toward the affluent Penny and his abusive dad, but it’s wariness rather than superiority that dominates his attitude toward Danny.

Leslie Ann Giles has so often been the grownup in the room during her 10 seasons with the Children’s Theatre touring company, particularly in their various Commedia lampoons. So it’s interesting to see her going against that grain as Louise, the wayward adult who needs to beg for a second and third chance – from her son! Giles obviously revels in the opportunity to be so complicated, wanting to be the good mother and provider but frequently sliding backwards in those uphill battles.

As hard as some parents struggle to maintain the illusion that they’ve got everything under control, I wonder how uncomfortable taking their children to see the Carters might be. Danny could be the perfect medicine for such parents. I know that I felt myself rooting ardently for both Danny and Louise.

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