The first thing you notice at “Danny, King of the Basement” is how fast kids’ minds move.
The four actors at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte speak David S. Craig’s dialogue quickly and fluidly. They shift pieces of the simple set at top speed, sometimes while dialogue goes on. They step in and out of characters rapidly, going offstage to voice invisible adults. And the young audience rolls with them, laughing in the right places, and making apprehensive sounds, and “whooooooa-ing” at insults that land below the belt.
Director Mark Sutton pushes the play forward with a sense of sustained urgency, from the moment Danny and his mom escape an abusive boyfriend to the very last sentence. Danny’s life consists of constant, often unanticipated relocations; he and his mother have changed addresses eight times in two years. So as long as we live in Danny’s world, he and we never stop moving.
Craig doesn’t feel the need to answer all our questions, either. What triggered this sudden pattern of constant relocation? Where did Danny’s dad really go? Is Danny (Scott Miller), who can rattle off bus schedules for New York City, somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum?
We must take these people as we find them, from Danny’s eternally optimistic but possibly deluded mom (Leslie Ann Giles) to his new landlady’s stuck-up daughter (Veda Covington) to blithe, hockey-playing Angelo (Rahsheem Shabazz). Each has trouble somewhere in the background: Penelope’s bursts of self-assertion conceal her loneliness and need to please, and Angelo’s offstage dad roars like a dinosaur at the son who disappoints him.
The play has a sense of humor pitched at elementary-schoolers and slightly above. (The ones at Friday morning’s school performance responded vigorously.) When we see Danny shiver in a New York City winter without a coat, though, we know he’s seriously in trouble.
The play takes an interesting slant on imagination and creativity. Most shows for kids extol those (and should), encouraging them to dream. But Danny uses these qualities as a crutch: Reality has become so unpleasant that he invents games and roles for himself to play as a way of evading uncomfortable truths. The abrupt ending suggests he has begun to come to grips with this behavior but offers no smooth path to happiness.
The acting’s all good, but Miller steps out. His Danny speaks in staccato bursts of pleasure, anxiety and frustration, and his hunched posture and darting eyes show us a boy who may be about to implode. He’s both pathetic and sympathetic, a “king” of the basement who has all but given up hope of a commoner’s life.