Posted: Fri., Apr. 29, 2005, 5:24pm PT

Everything Will Be Different
(Soho Rep; 70 seats; $15 top) A Soho Rep presentation with True Love Prods. of a play in one act by Mark Schultz. Directed by Daniel Aukin.
Heather - Naomi Aborn
Charlotte - Laura Heisler
Franklin - Jason Jurman
Harry - Christopher McCann
Gary - Bill Coelius
Freddie - Reynaldo Valentin

Teenagers are scary under the best of circumstances. But a 15-year-old girl who lives in a fantasy world at home and acts out sexually at school is downright terrifying. It takes an uncommonly sensitive playwright to probe the psyche of such a troubled child and an unusually gifted actress to play her sympathetically. Scribe Mark Schultz and youthful thesp Laura Heisler pull off this high-wire tightrope act with gravity and grace in "Everything Will Be Different," a production that's all the more satisfying for being so dangerously funny.

What you really need to know about Charlotte (Heisler) is that her mother is dead -- dead, dead, dead -- and the poor kid just can't deal with it. Neither can her father, Harry (Christopher McCann), who can't bring himself to talk to his daughter and blunts his own grief by sitting in front of the TV in his bathrobe like an unshaven, nicotine-addicted zombie.

Kip Marsh sets the surreal tone with an oddly out-of-whack domestic setting in which a few sticks of furniture -- a plain couch, a bare table and chairs, multiple lamps that shed light on nothing -- float unmoored on a stage dominated by a giant blue TV screen. In keeping with the bleak mood, Jane Cox's lighting is harsh and non-illuminating. An alienated teenager is definitely on her own in this cold, barren setting.

Not that Charlotte registers any sense of awareness about where she is: Living as she does in her imagination, she rarely touches base with the real world. In Heisler's electrifying perf, the girl is all nerves and mouth, rattling off Schultz's monologues with such fierce intensity and raw anger that one can only wonder what she'd do with a gun in her hand.

Detached from her father and unable to grieve for her mother, Charlotte retreats into the comforting fantasy that she's best friends with Heather (Naomi Aborn), the most popular girl in her class. The inane teenspeak is so authentic and delivered with such antic energy that it takes a while to register that this schoolgirl friendship -- in which Heather assures ugly-duckling Charlotte she is pretty and advises her on important matters like skincare -- exists entirely in Charlotte's head.

Within the risky scheme of David Aukin's production, it's left unclear which scenes depict actual incidents in Charlotte's life, which are exaggerated accounts of reality and which are pure fantasy. Did her guidance counselor really advise her on how to become a porn star? Is she really giving blow jobs to the school jocks? Can we even trust her version of her father's unkind treatment of her?

Even when it's obvious Charlotte is making stuff up, the supporting players in Aukin's well-cast production savvily play it for real. McCann gathers his grief around him like an old man shamefully yanking his bathrobe around his naked legs. And Jason Jurman maintains a sweet sense of innocence as the friend whom Charlotte seduces and betrays. But it's Charlotte who draws our eyes, and Heisler is quick and clever enough to keep us wondering exactly what we're seeing.

One thing is for sure -- Charlotte identifies her beautiful mother with Helen of Troy and has come to believe that sexual beauty confers magical powers. "Everyone loved her," she writes in a school report on the mythical Greek beauty. "Everyone wanted to have her. And they would have done anything for her. Even die."

There is also no doubt that Charlotte's inappropriate sexual behavior is her desperate attempt to replace a mother's love with what passes for love in a motherless world. Real or imagined, her misguided attempts at seduction are not illogical in a society that does, indeed, worship beauty and mistake sexual desire for love.

Set, Kip Marsh; costumes, Kim Gill; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Shane Rettig; production stage manager, Kendall O'Neill. Opened April 9. Reviewed April 27. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.