The San Francisco-based Cutting Ball Theater has been surprisingly long-lived and successful offering up esoteric, experimental fare (Heiner Muller, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, the modern absurdist Mac Wellman), as well as new takes on classics by Shakespeare, Strindberg, and Euripides, among others. I’ve seen only a smattering of their work, and the productions are almost always elegantly and creatively staged. Their recent production of The Tempest, was beautifully conceived and thought out, even though it faltered at play’s end. Artistic director Rob Melrose is currently directing three short plays by Will Eno, who has certainly made a name for himself in New York and here, with recent performances at both Cutting Ball and Berkeley Rep, and an extended Off-Broadway run of his best-known play Thom Paine (based on nothing).
I tend to be suspicious of writers who view non-standard capitalization as an act of rebellion, which is why I stayed away from Thom Paine. The New York Time’s Charles Isherwood’s description of Eno as “… a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” meant as a compliment, seemed to me more of a warning: hip, ironic post-modernism wedded to issues of existence and meaning. And by “ironic” I mean the cultural snarkiness pervasive in our times as opposed to the true, deep irony that underpins the theater’s great masterpieces: King Lear, Othello, Waiting for Godot, Three Sisters, and countless others. Melrose addresses this in the program’s director’s note: “Just as Beckett exploited the forms of slapstick comedy, vaudeville, and silent movies, Eno puts his ideas in the forms of stand-up comedy and the 24-hour news cycle. The fact that Eno is able to tackle such weighty themes in these forms (which we normally associate with glibness and superficiality) is exactly what makes his work so surprising and catches us off guard.” And although this is an apt description of what Eno is attempting, Melrose and I disagree on how successful his approach is. As evidenced by the three short plays presented here, Eno’s tone and style undercut his interest in aging, death, and decay. His fascination seems forced and rather callow, not the desperate obsession, filled with both beauty and horror, it was for Beckett.
The evening’s first piece, Lady Grey (in ever lower light) (again with the weird capitalization) is an extended monologue (ably delivered by Danielle O’Hare) on life, death, and all the stuff in between that takes as its starting-off point the old grade school tradition of Show and Tell. Show and Tell is of course, theater at its most basic, someone in front of an audience presenting a story. Lady Grey (I assume there’s some sort of connection to Lady Jane Grey, the Protestant would-be queen executed by her cousin, the Catholic Mary I) addresses the audience directly and tells stories both about herself and a young girl named “Jennifer,” who may or may not be Lady Grey. “You seem nervous,” she says to the audience at the opening, “so why don’t I start?” Her stream-of-consciousness verbal meanderings include quips such as “I caught the acting bug very young—maybe it was a rash,” and she describes the audience as “white people in chairs.” (Sigh.) She sings a fragment of a song, stops in the middle, pauses, and says, “Sorry, I was thinking of something else.” She describes her few love affairs, and bemoans the passing of time and its ultimate ending for her. O’Hare couldn’t be better, but her performance only heightens the problems with the script and its tone. Lady Grey floats on the surface of what she’s discussing. There’s no resonance, only a wry matter of fact-ness, and the piece evaporates as soon as it’s over. (Heather Basarab’s lighting design also couldn’t be better. Subtle, evocative, and highly effective, there are no flashy effects, just a perfect heightening of mood.)
The show’s second piece Intermission is the most accessible of the three and the funniest, ostensibly about the impossibility of predicting how and to whom a piece of theater will communicate. Two couples, one younger and one older, view the end of the first act of some medical-based life and death drama, and then discuss what they’ve seen at the intermission. The younger couple is less interested while for the older couple the life-and-death themes have more meaning. But what makes this piece so enjoyable is Galen Murphy-Hoffman’s portrayal as the male half of the younger couple. He’s pitch-perfect as a certain type of theatergoer, the man pulled along by his feminine counterpart to a play, unengaged but also without antipathy. If this stuff on stage is supposed to mean something, so be it, but he doesn’t really see what the fuss is about. He still manages to find his pleasures, though. He reads the program and announces, “One of the actors thanks their dogs.” He puts his hands in his pockets and says, “Look how much change I have.” Murphy-Hoffman connects with the audience not just because most of them share his point of view (we’ve all been there, watching some work straining to be important—in fact, we’re there now), but also because of his relaxed, confident, and humorous performance. I look forward to seeing him in more substantial roles.
The third one-act, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, begins with a tantrum as Mr. Theatre (David Sinaiko) comes home, turns over his kitchen table, talks a lot, and later eats a flower. I checked out early on. One sentence did catch my ear: “Would that my fake feelings could make yours more genuine.” Well, that’s pretty much the goal of theater, but Eno’s phrasing of it comes from a place of negation: achievement of the goal is not a possibility. And maybe for him that’s true. (These works certainly point to that.) But when theater is successful, the fake is made real. When Didi and Gogo pointlessly wait for Godot in some nameless place, we identify with them completely, no matter how abstract their situation.
Eno is self-consciously Beckettian. He places profundities next to banalities and tends towards the epigrammatic. But at the end of the day, he’s only appropriating Beckett’s themes and style, covering them with a hip veneer that ensures no real communication will happen. Eno seems not to believe in his chosen art, in the possibility of connection. In this chattering age, nothing can be heard, he seems to be saying, and he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the night, there’s nothing much at stake here.
Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays shows from now until April 10 at EXIT on Taylor Street, 277 Taylor Street at Ellis, San Francisco. For more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.cuttingball.com.