Playwrights’ Center

A kaleidoscope fractures an image into multifaceted beauty, breaking it up to create a more complicated picture. That may be the rationale behind the aggressive obscurity of these one-acts by William Vaughn Johnson, in a Playwrights’ Center premiere: they refract reality through extreme characters. Unfortunately, the refraction ends up out of focus, if not out of control, and the distortions reveal nothing.

Worse, these plays create their own law of diminishing returns, each one wearing out the welcome for the next.

Kospodinov, the first entry, fares best. It’s a mildly amusing portrait of the title character, a thinly masochistic failed novelist. This self-declared “introspective artist-jerk-loser” sits at an antique table and neurasthenically describes (in French, translated by a prim interpreter) his desire to be dull, his abuse of the “freedom to be extremely stupid,” and his part-time passion for a young student. After relating that he hears a tuning fork inside him and has dreamed of exploring a house full of changing scenery, he plays a cracked Chopin recording on a Victrola, despairingly stalks offstage, then drags in a gas-powered lawn mower with which he drowns out the music and nearly asphyxiates the audience.

Here Johnson’s brand of gratuitous absurdity isn’t exactly a laugh riot but its quirks are richly surprising. In Edward Sobel’s staging, Raymond Yust plays the aggressive loser with an abandoned hopelessness, and Adrianne Duncan translates the tirade with decorous disinterest.

Mired in precious metaphors, The Secret Play suits its title only too well. The seemingly crazed Emily Clutter finds herself in a hospital gown, somehow trapped and lost in time outside the ruins of a church that she may have torched. Surrounded by her supposed dead victims, suffering from a secret sin or sorrow, the presumed incendiary is afraid to move and rejects the pleas of her parents to come home. Emily undergoes years of penance in this mental limbo, only to learn that she may in fact be innocent. She ends her vigil none too soon.

At best this is maddening stuff, cryptic as a dream. Sobel’s staging does its best to chart the craters and depressions of Emily’s inner landscape, and Dawn Hillman plays her with a weird mix of ebullience and pain. But the playwright has so thoroughly insulated The Secret Play from any explication that there’s no penetrating it at all. Emily may go home, but we remain lost in space.

The third, most absurdist offering, The Larger Problem, benefits from a claustrophobic, skewed-perspective set full of beat-up props and engulfed in a sound design bursting with artillery volleys (set, lights, and sound by Daniel Michael Frazier). A cocktail party goes on for months, while outside a war rages pitilessly. The guests are a bizarre microcosm: among the idiotic and irrelevant survivors are a greedy businessman, pompous codger, self-important intellectual, college student majoring in destruction, and fulsome French officer. They comment on the endless stench of rotting corpses, feed on human flesh, swill down gasoline, and regularly repeat themselves like Genet characters, from whose The Balcony much of this seems to have been borrowed.

The Larger Problem resembles even more Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and sure enough in the final moment a headless man enters to confront these evaders of their own carnage. He may not speak but he still gets the last word.

Unfortunately, too many words come before it. Initially inventive, the absurdity eventually wears thin and we’re left with yet another cerebral antiwar effort. Too many contemporary writers fight war with bloodless dramas and empty dialogue. Brecht knew that it takes passion to fight war–on its equally passionate terms.

Happily, this staging by Linda Miles and Tammy Berlin is more definitive than this bleak exercise deserves, and almost as ingenious as the set. Rich, deft character work from an industrious non-Equity cast makes this Problem delightful to watch, if not to hear. But don’t expect it to add up in the end. This kind of stuff always diminishes instead.