Empty Houses

at Cafe Voltaire

Playwright Len Jenkin must thrive on twilight–that ambiguous time of day without identifiable beginning or end when the world gradually changes color. His plays are full of liminal images, in which time is suspended and reality is distorted as though it were being reflected in a fun house mirror.

Limbo Tales, a collection of three monologues, typifies Jenkin’s sensibility. The characters seem forever trapped in moments of transition, waiting for some event that seems unlikely to occur. In the opening piece, “Highway,” an assistant professor of anthropology (J. Michael Brennan) drives along a highway in the middle of the night, racing toward his girlfriend’s house an hour away. He’s worked himself into a state because he thought he heard something funny in her voice when they spoke earlier on the phone. “She seemed angry about something,” he explains. “I think she said she wanted to discuss our future, or the future.” As he drives, his mind begins to reel: she may be driving right now to meet him, in which case he should turn around and meet her at his house. On the other hand, she may have started driving, then realized that he was driving to meet her, in which case she might have already turned around and gone back to her house to wait for him. The farther he drives, the less certain he becomes of anything.

In the closing piece, “Hotel,” a former Feldman’s Book of Knowledge salesman (Craig Bryant) who’s run out of money, luck, and inspiration is holed up in a transient hotel, listening to the hack poet who lives in the room to his right, the consumptive drug addict and her friends who live in the room to his left, and the lightning rod salesman who roams the halls pitching his wares to the hapless bunch. It seems the event that landed him in this predicament was a cheap sexual encounter on his last day as a salesman. He had sex with a young woman in Bent Fork, Alberta, and when her husband and children arrived home he was invited to dinner. He even ended up playing with the children afterward. The shame he feels, having brought “fear and lying and no love” into this blissful family, has undermined every aspect of his life. All he can do now is sit in his room and wait for the landlady to kick him out.

Linking these two pieces is the Master of Ceremonies (Victor D’Altorio), a slimy, talentless, unimaginative snake oil salesman who suspiciously refers to his fellow actors as “my associates.” Without a creative idea in his head, he’s reduced to going through a litany of the freak-show acts he was unfortunately unable to book for the evening.

Jenkin creates the atmosphere of a traveling carnival or road show, where each phony attraction is both overdone and beguiling. Lee Kay’s design deftly reinforces this idea. His garish cutout sets look intentionally slapped together: the car bumper in “Highway,” for example, is a three-foot length of air-conditioning hose. Yet together the elements have a kind of conspiratorial flair, giving them an inviting, human quality. The bed in “Hotel,” for instance, looks like an ordinary institutional bed except that it’s only about four feet long, preventing the actor from ever getting comfortable on it. It’s as if the set were playing practical jokes on the cast, always keeping them guessing.

The Empty Houses cast, under Kay Martinovich’s direction, give clear, careful performances. Confronted with Jenkin’s dense text, they’ve chosen to proceed deliberately, painting each image meticulously before moving on to the next. D’Al- torio does this particularly well: he’s so methodical in his delivery, choosing his words with such care, that his intentions always seem suspect, making him the perfect impresario for this nefarious endeavor.

But though this measured approach makes the text quite clear, it also robs Limbo Tales of much of its mystery. In “Highway” and “Hotel,” Brennan and Bryant proceed with so much caution, providing so many unfilled pauses, that they give the evening an unnaturally slow pace. The actors seem too rooted in the text–stopping, for example, after nearly every period–instead of speaking from the experience or memory described. As a result images rarely intermingle, and the larger patterns that should give the play resonance don’t develop. The rich ambiguity of Jenkin’s text remains dormant.

The rather sluggish pace of the evening is symptomatic of a more central problem: those involved seem uncertain of the larger points they want to make. The actors certainly understand the moments, but they’ve not yet discovered why they need to tell their stories–and to an audience. With no answer to these fundamental questions, the actors lack the dramatic urgency, the sense of necessity, that should drive their performances.