By JOHN DeMERS
Have you ever gone to a play, sat in an audience that clearly enjoyed the evening – had a “good time” – and then found in the lobby that few people agreed on the meaning of what they’d just seen? That’s something like seeing the new Stages production of Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations. In fact, that’s exactly like seeing it.
The New York-based Eno is, by popular acclimation, a dazzlingly gifted playwright. Such works as Thom Paine (based on nothing) and The Flu Season have found small but passionate audiences here in Houston, thanks to the more experimental theatrical fringe like Mildred’s Umbrella and Nova Arts Project. For works like these, setting up camp at Stages next door to pop entertainments like The Marvelous Wonderettes is a step toward the mainstream indeed. Yet the lobby comments established beyond doubt that, if the “mainstream” means a clear, basic meaning strung around an evening of fun, then Eno happily hasn’t gone there yet.
Humanity is quite dark in its vision of human life (words like “tragic” and even “depressing” were tossed around in the lobby, though I object to the second one), but so were words like “lively,” “funny” and even “hilarious.” There was disagreement about what comedy actually is, what “funny” actually means, plus one guy who maintained that all those people laughing in the audience weren’t really laughing. I assured him that I was, thinking all the while of my favorite description of Eno’s work: Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. Apparently so.
The hour-and-a-quarter intermission-free production seems brief enough, but then you see it’s actually five even shorter plays joined by a towering white backdrop that keeps blowing out windows like old tires as the weather and ultimately the seasons change. Time seems to be involved somehow, but since the characters are different in each vignette, we don’t see anyone aging or evolving. We simply bump into them, scramble to figure out what they’re doing with their lives and why, and, best of all, listen to them talk. People talking is Eno’s best thing.
Like a hipper, more contemporary Tom Stoppard, Eno is one of the few playwrights who still power their plays on incredibly rich language – more than plot (obviously, here), more than characterization as we typically understand it, and definitely more than action. In Oh, the Humanity’s five not-so-easy pieces, he gives us five sets of people in five mostly mundane circumstances – then arms them with a powerful vocabulary of longing, desire, hope, wistfulness and despair that continually breaks through our daily babble to form poetry on the air. I can’t count the dozens of times I wanted to stop and ponder a line in Humanity, only to be hustled on by the next line and the one after that. If this is intellectual entertainment, so be it. But it comes with a high degree of strong emotion and an even higher degree of grudging identification with these characters’ ultimately sad (or maybe tragic, but also totally normal) fates.
Wonderfully directed by Alex Harvey, only three actors make all this stuff come to life – led by veteran Philip Lehl, who opens the show as a football coach holding a news conference to explain, or address, or maybe just react to yet another losing season. At every moment in this familiar media jockfest in front of microphones, you can’t tell if he’s talking about football, lost love or the entirety of human existence. Mikelle Johnson and Erik Hellman shine, with and without Lehl, in other vignettes – especially when they share the stage as two singles making videos about themselves for a dating service. Neither knows, or probably ever meets, the other; yet their time before the cameras is real, funny and touching – and yes, damn it, maybe a bit tragic. Much the same is true of the playette about the airline spokeswoman addressing families of crash victims and of the two photographers staging a photograph (of us, the audience) that mirrors a famous one of soldiers on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
By the time we reach the final piece, titled “Oh, the Humanity,” we see an attractive couple get dressed for work and then fail to make their car start. They discover, much to their dismay, that at least one of the reasons it won’t start is that it’s actually two chairs placed side-by-side on a theater stage. Huh? In real time, this is a lovely, question-spinning vignette. We’re forced to wonder how much of what we live as real life is simply part of a stage set, part of everything we believe in that’s not actually there. Yes. And even as we’re forced to ponder the relative reality of our lives, we realize along with two characters speaking of baptisms and funerals – and another speaking of “majesty” – that there’s a pretty severe case of brevity as well.
The audience laughs at this, recognizing themselves way too much for comfort. I, for one, thought it was mostly funny. But then again, we don’t know what funny even means.