Sunday, March 27, 2011

Will Eno's Mesmerizing Meta-Theater

I loved Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) when Cutting Ball produced it two years ago, so I was excited to see the theater company's latest offering, Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays by Will Eno. Even better, the playwright was there in person and did a "talk-forward" (i.e., a pre-show talk) with director Rob Melrose on opening night.

At the talk-forward, Eno said that he wrote Lady Grey, the evening's flagship play, at around the same time he wrote Thom Pain, because he wanted to explore similar motifs and themes, but with "feminine energy." I have said before that Thom Pain is really hard to describe to someone who's never seen it, but Lady Grey is really easy to describe -- it truly is the female version of Thom Pain. Both are one-person shows where the performer tells deadpan jokes, reminisces about lost love, and tells a disjointed story about a child who may or may not be a younger version of themself. He/she seems to enjoy the audience's discomfort, but also to detest it -- to seek the audience's approval even as he/she scorns it.

At times I wondered whether the differences between Thom Pain and Lady Grey -- between "masculine energy" and "feminine energy" -- just reinforce gender stereotypes. For instance, even though Lady Grey has an ambivalent relationship with the audience and at one point even curses everyone in the theater, she seems much more insecure, much more concerned than Thom Pain about whether the audience likes her or not. Furthermore, Thom's story has to do with the endurance of pain (he tells the story of a little boy getting stung by a swarm of bees), while Lady Grey's story is more about sexuality (she tells the story of a little girl who strips naked for Show and Tell).

But, you know, maybe these gender differences are realistic. In a society where female bodies are more sexualized than male bodies, perhaps a woman would be likelier to say "maybe you'd like me better if I took my clothes off" when in front of an audience. And in general, women are more concerned with whether other people like them. Didn't I just say the other day that male artists tend to be Bad Boys and female artists tend to be Dutiful Daughters? That's certainly an apt description of Thom Pain versus Lady Grey. Moreover, in Lady Grey, Eno draws effective parallels between physical nudity and emotional nudity/vulnerability. It's not cheap or meretricious.

After Lady Grey, there's an intermission -- and then you come back and take your seat for Intermission, a four-character play about 15 minutes long. All of the reviews have singled this play out as the highlight of Cutting Ball's production, and I have to agree -- it's a gem of a script and earns a slot on my Favorite Short Plays of All Time list. Perhaps it doesn't sound like much on paper: a younger couple and an older couple, dressed up to see a show at an ACT-type theater, spend intermission discussing the play that they're watching, and other topics such as sorrow and loss. Eno has great fun lampooning bad playwriting in the snatches of dialogue we get to hear from the play-within-the-play, a melodrama about assisted suicide (this is all the funnier because ACT actually produced a melodrama about assisted suicide, The Quality of Life, two years ago). The jokes zing, but there is also pain and wisdom and questioning here. Eno certainly doubts the value of mediocre, manipulative plays like the one seen by the characters of Intermission -- and one of the characters even seems to doubt the value of all theater, all fiction and artifice. Intermission itself, though, proves a rebuttal to Eno's doubts. It is valuable theater.

The final play of the evening, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, is another one-man show, worthwhile because it lets the great David Sinaiko rant, rave, be sardonic, knock over furniture, play a love scene, a mad scene, and a death scene within a 10-minute span, and greedily eat a carnation (which is one of the funniest things I've seen all year). There is more philosophizing here about the nature of theater and life, but I most enjoyed this play as an entertainment/vaudeville, and I think there's value in that, too.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays is at the Cutting Ball Theater through April 10.

Image: Actors David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and Danielle O'Hare in Intermission.

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