Saturday, December 22, 2007

Short Exclamations

Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jim Simpson
Starring Marisa Tomei, Brian Hutchinson
November 3, 2007-February 2, 2008

The Flea Theater
41 White Street, Tribeca

It's appropriate that one of the five playlets that make up Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations features a photographer and his assistant, since each short is a snapshot of one or two characters, vividly brought to life partly through Eno’s writing and largely through the superb acting of Marisa Tomei and Brian Hutchinson, who invest all the characters they play with enormous charm, humanity, and wit, explicitly supplying what Eno only obliquely hints at. (The master of the short form was Samuel Beckett, but even his bold experimentation in language, action, and the very length of plays wasn’t always successful.)

Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured is a monologue for a high school sports coach whose press conference following yet another bad loss turns into a psychiatric session in existentialism by a man who’s been beaten down by a lot more than merely the losses of his team. In Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, a man and a woman make videos for a dating service in which they discuss what they’re looking for in a soul mate. An airline spokeswoman speaking to the gathered family members of a crash’s victims unleashes unintended offensive statements in Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently.

The fourth short, The Bully Composition stars the aforementioned photographer and his assistant who want to recreate an old photo of soldiers during the Spanish American War. Finally, Oh, the Humanity concerns a husband and wife on their way to either a funeral or a baptism–they can’t remember which.

As these synopses suggest, Eno sets up ordinary situations with ordinary people, then tweaks them in an absurdist way. That’s fine as far as it goes, but Eno stacks the deck far too severely for such slight material, with the absurdism less organic than forced. Eno’s method works best in the two monologues about the coach and the airline PR person, as the actors artfully approach Eno’s lonely characters and slowly, imperceptibly cross the line into unbridled absurdity, which paradoxically heightens our sympathy.

Throughout, Tomei and Hutchinson invest Eno’s dialogue–which is far more biting in the two monologues than in the stilted, forced conversations in the other plays (including the overlapping monologues of the desperate single people in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain)–with conviction and emotion that are otherwise lacking in the playwright’s dry exercises in style.

The actors forcefully breathe more life into their material than it deserves, especially when they directly address the audience in The Bully Composition. But even they are defeated by Eno’s weak stab at Deep Meaning in the limp finale, Oh the Humanity, which drags in a third character to intone about the Beauty and Majesty of Life.

Jim Simpson directs with a knack for the short form, and he’s canny enough to allow his actors the leeway to make this very short evening seem more substantial than it is.
originally posted on

No comments: