In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe
Frump Tucker Theatre Company
at Bailiwick Arts Center
By Adam Langer
I believe everything I read, and I think that makes me a better person. –Nigel Tufnell, This Is Spinal Tap
Montage. It’s the name of a sinister publishing house in Eric Overmyer’s 1986 play, In Perpetuity Thoughout the Universe, but it’s also an accurate description of the author’s cut-and-paste postmodern style. This hyperintellectual writer, whose works include Dark Rapture and On the Verge as well as television scripts for Homicide and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, seems to have ingested a whole volume of pomo criticism before sitting down to write this dense, abstract tale of paranoia: in our age of conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremist groups, truth seems to be less and less an available commodity.
The trouble with the pastiche approach is that, though it may evoke interesting conversations and deliciously impenetrable doctoral dissertations, it doesn’t necessarily produce compelling theater. Overmyer might have a point when he criticizes the modern “need for narrative closure” and “inability to tolerate ambiguity,” as one character puts it. But when a play is composed largely of disconnected shards flying in a cyclone of repetitions and tangential ruminations instead of building toward a climax, there may be little to hold an audience’s attention.
Some writers who also play this nonlinear game–Alain Robbe-Grillet comes to mind–start with a whole and break it down piece by piece to provide a dizzyingly discombobulated vision. But Overmyer appears to have started and ended with the jigsaw pieces, having no clear idea of what the picture is supposed to look like. This channel-surfing approach means that, although certain sections might sustain attention, the whole will ultimately fail to satisfy.
The fragmented urban-corporate landscape that Overmyer creates in this play seems modeled on an image mentioned by one of his characters: a high-rise at night, producing a checkerboard pattern in which each lit window suggests its own story–perhaps a solitary writer, a pair of lovers, a lonely after-hours worker. Their lives are entirely separate, and try as the viewer might to discern relationships, they remain wholly independent. Any patterns and connections exist only in the mind of the viewer.
Through the windows of Over-myer’s dramatic construction, the audience is allowed glimpses of the workers at Montage, a publishing house that employs ghostwriters to transcribe–or invent out of whole cloth–the insane ramblings of conspiracy theorists, leaders of white-power groups, and other wackos, the sort who resorted to vanity presses before the arrival of the Internet, which thoroughly democratized the practice of spewing paranoid bullshit.
Christine Penderecki is a new employee who’s quickly initiated into the sinister world of Montage ghostwriters. She’s reminiscent of the character Warren Beatty plays in The Parallax View, who gets tangled up with an assassination corporation–with the difference that the film demonstrates the very paranoia Overmyer satirizes. Working as a writer and researcher, Penderecki encounters an assortment of crackpot authors and figures of ill repute, including a disturbed man obsessed with chain letters, a lusty publisher, the leader of an Asian crime cartel, and a purportedly sexy Russian spy straight out of The Bullwinkle Show.
Given Overmyer’s nonlinear approach, it would be pointless to try to come up with a traditional plot description. Though there are hints of a through line–Overmyer creates a series of variations on the themes of authorship and the absurdity of “originality”–what primarily emerge are sections of uninvolving narrative followed by hit-or-miss digressions.
What prevents In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe from being a dull, completely academic exercise is Overmyer’s occasionally witty prose, including giddy forays into pop-culture critique: hilarious recitations of ominous chain letters, lists of the improbable beliefs held by conspiracy theorists and other “apostles of paranoia” (such as the contention that the Vatican incited the Bolshevik revolution and engineered the Holocaust), litanies of bad movies, knowing references to cultural benchmarks like the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and amusing games of word association that allow Overmyer to speak in the same breath of domino theory and Van Morrison’s “Domino.” However, by refusing to create a coherent context, underscoring his mockery of the need for coherence, Overmyer has produced an ambitious but increasingly repetitive and finally monotonous play.
The folks at Frump Tucker have been trumpeting the parallels between Overmyer’s script and The X-Files–both show an interest in mysterious, smarty-pants quests for truth. But the play lacks the TV show’s suspense and sympathetic, credible characters. There’s no buildup, no payoff, no compelling reason to keep watching the play as it passes the two-hour mark.
Perhaps a zany, zingy staging could have made Overmyer’s discursive, frankly dated ramblings palatable for a bit, but Frump Tucker’s merely competent production, directed by Kelly Lynn Hogan, is rather flat. Paul Noble is effective in the dual roles of a mild-mannered writer and the suave, somewhat frightening demagogue Ampersand Qwerty. But many of the other performers try too hard to find a middle ground between straight characterization and camp. Superficially the production is stylish, with a sleek set design by David Denman: corporate work spaces are set off by screens and props redolent of Asian culture, suggesting the late 80s, when it seemed every other nonfiction volume on the New York Times best-seller list linked Wall Street and Asian business techniques. But though the set is clever and attractive, it’s also frustratingly angled: we spend about a third of our time watching actors’ backs.
In her director’s note, Hogan refers to Taoist and Mayan beliefs, trying to convey the weight of Overmyer’s philosophical play. But the grand unities and interconnectedness of which she speaks are the opposite of what the play propounds. The desire to find unity and establish connections isn’t Overmyer’s aim but the aim of conspiracy theorists, who in their paranoid beliefs about second gunmen, magic bullets, and universe-controlling Zionist organizations are trying to discern patterns and make sense out of a senseless world. Though Hogan and her cast strive nobly to find the lines that will connect Overmyer’s dots, no compelling final image materializes, resulting in a play that’s far more interesting to discuss than to sit through.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe uncredited theater still.