By Richard Ades
Back in March, Wild Women Writing presented a collection of pieces about people On the Edge. This month, it’s offering plays about people who’ve gone Over the Edge.
What’s the difference? Rick Gore of Short North Stage (which is co-presenting the production) offered an explanation during a post-performance talkback. He pointed out that the characters in the earlier show often pushed their relationships to the brink of separation but then pulled back, whereas in this show, relationships are more likely to be doomed.
Both shows feature one piece by Samuel Beckett and several short works by another playwright. In On the Edge, the second playwright was Britain’s Harold Pinter; in Over the Edge, it’s contemporary American playwright Will Eno.
Given the contrast between the two shows, could it be that Eno has an even bleaker view of life than Pinter? Maybe so, but he sometimes leavens that bleakness with a sly sense of humor.
This comes out most clearly in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, in which a man and a woman (John Hawk and Heather Caldwell) are shown recording videos for a dating website. The recording sessions seem to be going on in separate locations, as there’s no connection between the man and the woman. And judging from the way they describe themselves, neither of them is likely to forge a connection with anyone else, either.
Delivered with droll matter-of-factness by Hawk and Caldwell under Katherine Burkman’s direction, their comments are hilariously banal and random. “I’m good at grocery shopping,” the man says, while the woman admits she’s never understood why breaking the sound barrier has to create so much racket. Both are desperate to share their lives with someone, but neither has any idea how to bring that about. Their situations are at once laughable and pitiable.
The other Eno pieces have a similarly downbeat viewpoint, though it’s delivered more straightforwardly.
In The Bully Composition, two people (Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald) set out to re-create a classic photo of soldiers posing between battles during the Spanish-American War. Treating the audience as their models, they urge viewers to imagine they’re in a time and place where life could take a turn for the worse at any moment. The comparison between war and our everyday reality is hard to miss.
In Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured, the title character (David Fawcett) holds a press conference to explain why he failed to lead his team to victory during the past season. “It was a building year,” he starts out, but his defenses eventually crumble—much as his team’s defenses undoubtedly crumbled on the playing field. Before it’s over, he’s revealed way too much about the insecurities that plague every aspect of his life.
The piece has resonance, particularly in a football-obsessed town like Columbus, and is my second-favorite Eno playlet (after Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain). However, Fawcett could give it even more resonance, along with a few more chuckles, if he threw himself into the part a bit more.
Speaking of Columbus, the show’s one Beckett work is called Ohio Impromptu. Its name notwithstanding, it has nothing to do with the Buckeye State except that it was first performed here.
The play features a white-bearded Richard Green reading from an apparently personal essay while an identically bearded Fawcett listens and occasionally raps on the table when he wants Green to stop or repeat something. Basically, it’s a stylish and macabre rumination on death, much like Beckett’s Rockaby from the March show.
Wrapping up the evening is the most unvarnished expression of Eno’s dark outlook, Oh, the Humanity. It begins with a bickering couple (Gerald and a particularly convincing Green) attempting to drive somewhere in a car, which is represented by two chairs. Strangely, they can’t agree on whether they’re going to a funeral or a christening, but this becomes a moot point when the man realizes that they can’t go anywhere because their “car” is—you guessed it—two chairs.
Adding to the piece’s self-conscious theatricality, a third character (Hawk) introduces himself as “The Beauty of Things.” He mostly just observes the couple’s troubles, but at one point he turns to the audience and tells us he knows we expect him to say something reassuring. The line probably would work better if we hadn’t just seen enough Eno to realize that reassurance is not what the playwright is about.
My first take on Eno is that he’s a serious artist who can be hysterically funny when he’s not being annoyingly pretentious. Clearly, though, he’s worth paying attention to, since he’s an up-and-comer who had plays both on and off-Broadway in 2014. Many thanks to Wild Women Writing for giving Columbus a chance to meet him.
Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present Over the Edge With Beckett and Eno through May 10 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.