LOWELL — Although the characters in “Chill’’ deploy that title word as a verb and debate its merits as an adjective, it is the noun form — and a certain famous movie — that Eleanor Burgess clearly wants us to keep in mind as we watch her impressive, Brookline-based new play.
In “Chill,’’ four friends — two male, two female — grapple with life’s uncertainties and disappointments, confront questions about which roads to take (and roads not taken), and deal with a couple of ongoing crushes, not unlike the ‘60s survivors in “The Big Chill.’’
But while it’s the specific realization of mortality that causes a case of the existential shivers in “The Big Chill,’’ what primarily comes through in “Chill’’ is a portrait of millennials knocked off-balance by the simple fact that time passes much more quickly than you could ever anticipate when you’re young. To which baby boomers can only say: Welcome to the club.
Now receiving its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre under the dexterous direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, “Chill’’ is shrewdly observed and uncommonly well-written, if essentially plotless. For the first half of “Chill,’’ I was engaged but wondered where, if anywhere, the play was going.
As it turned out, Burgess was planting seeds that flower in the second half. “Chill’’ could still use a more fleshed-out narrative and a sharper focus, however. Unlike the shocking suicide that brings the old gang back together for a bout of soul-searching in “The Big Chill,’’ no big event reverberates throughout “Chill’’ and informs its interactions.
In Act One, it’s March 2001, and a group of 17- and 18-year-old high school seniors are hanging out in a semi-finished basement in Brookline (Burgess graduated from Brookline High School). They are: studious and literary-minded Jenn (Maria Jung); carefree and self-assured Alli (Monica Giordano); serious, socially conscious Ethan (Danny Bryck); and jock Stu (Kim Fischer). All four performances are deftly and distinctively drawn. Jung particularly stands out for the way she captures Jenn’s blend of ambition and insecurity.
Most of the foursome are waiting to hear which colleges they’ve gotten into, and all of them are feeling the pressure of expectations. There’s the pervasive sense that the real world is pressing in on them, demanding that they make decisions that will matter more than any they’ve had to make before. Whatever they decide, they’re determined not to turn into their parents. “That’s not gonna be us,’’ Alli assures Jenn. “We’re gonna be amazing.’’
In Act Two, it’s November 2011, and the same four friends, now 28, have reunited in the same basement. Jenn is now living in New York and struggling to launch a writing career while churning out clickbait on a cheesy website. Alli, her onetime confidence now gone wobbly, is burdened with college debt and barely getting by financially. Ethan is working on a PhD, devoting himself to studying the ominous implications of climate change — a focus that has taken a psychological toll on him, as he makes clear in a startling monologue. Stu, who’s working at a job he doesn’t much like, is about to get married.
Bit by bit, the reunion takes a contentious turn, straining the bonds of friendship, especially when political differences and questions of loyalty surface.
In the first act of “Chill,’’ Burgess demonstrates a sure-footedness when it comes to how teenagers would have spoken in that time and place, and how the collective mood can shift at any teenage gathering. Her lively, fast-moving dialogue is laced with period references (Napster, Blockbuster) that arise naturally rather than seeming shoehorned in. In the play’s second act, the playwright shows an astute grasp of how a certain panic sets in among many people as they approach the threshold of 30, a feeling that it may already be too late.
Last year millennials eclipsed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation (75.4 million to 74.9 million, according to the Pew Research Center). It’s their turn to take center stage and have their stories told, onstage and elsewhere. The story playwright Burgess uses her arresting authorial voice to tell in “Chill’’ is of a generation that feels stalled, unfulfilled, and more than a bit dismayed to be still struggling to get their act together at an age when they’d assumed they would have everything figured out.
Then there’s that nebulous, nagging sensation that Jenn puts into words in Act Two of “Chill,’’ one that transcends all generational lines: “I just miss the feeling that anything is possible.’’
Play by Eleanor Burgess. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through April 16. Tickets $26-$70, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org