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Theatre in Review: Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8 (Access Theatre)

Janice Amaya. Photo: Maria Baranova.

A hard-to-describe play can benefit from a vividly realized set design, and Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8 has one that is just the ticket. (By the way, I have searched long and hard to discover any evidence of a Brief Chronicle, Books 1-5. Has the playwright, Alex Borinsky, chosen to begin his saga in medias res, rather like the Star Wars films? Or am I even more out of the loop than I suspect? But I digress.) Sam Max, the set designer, surrounds the playing area on three sides with curtains made of transparent yellow plastic strips, which sometimes take on an iridescent quality thanks to Bax Pitt's inventive lighting design. Overhead is a row of cut-out floral-patterned Mexican pennants. A cactus sits onstage, along with what appears to be a glittery piƱata. Eventually, the dining table located upstage center will be replaced by a kiddie pool. None of this is arbitrary, because early on the characters will visit a Mexican restaurant, and, later on, a beach in Mexico. The real landscape of the play is largely psychological, however; whether it is that of Julian, the play's more-or-less protagonist, or Borinsky is a matter for further discussion. But Max, aided by Pitt, creates an environment that is both suitably abstract and evocative of Mexican culture, as repackaged for consumers and tourists. It lets us know what we're in for, stylistically, which is no small achievement.

Augustus Heagerty's production also features at least two striking performances. Jacob Perkins, a tall, willowy fellow with a set of feline gestures and a neat side-eye manner, is a perfectly unsettling figure as Julian's Mom, whose June Cleaver manners and slightly narcotized delivery do not disguise her problems with alcohol. (Everyone in the play is cast against gender, for reasons that remain mysterious. There are also moments when two of the male characters seem to be women, although it is temporary.) Turning to DT, the friend Julian has brought home, Mom says, "Now here is where you tell me everything and Julian sort of fades out of the picture a bit and you tell me everything." The redundant construction of the line is unfortunate, but the way that Perkins-as-Mom manages to edge her son out of the conversation, seizing the spotlight, tells you plenty about this family's dysfunctions.

Cast as a character named Band, Nicole Spiezio appears in an amusingly unflattering blue-and-white marching band uniform seemingly thieved by the costume designer, Ivy Karlsgodt, from a production of The Music Man. (Has anyone, since the dawn of time, ever looked good in such an outfit? I ask from personal experience.) She plays the only upbeat character in this often-passive festival of disillusionment and identity confusion, repeatedly striking vivacious poses and expounding on the joys of belonging to her high school's band. ("We're a tight-knit group, we're going to be friends forever, we have no secrets from each other, we are bound to one another by our labor, we're what makes the football games worth going to, we electrify crowds, we own the city's rhythm, you can feel us in your chest when we practice even when you're inside the building inside the library, we take no prisoners, we're the marching band.") Providing an obbligato to the play's detached, depressive principal voice, Spiezio's touch of stylish comedy helps keep Brief Chronicle watchable.

That Brief Chronicle, which runs a brief sixty minutes, never really becomes engaging is due to its scattershot construction, flat-affect presentation, and flourishes that seem to echo an earlier avant-garde age. Julian befriends DT, who is some kind of terrorist on the run from a bombing; the reasons for this crime are never made clear, since the character seems to have no political or moral convictions, much less a potent form of nihilism. The young men (played by young women) have a sexually charged relationship, informed, at least on Julian's part, by a self-hatred that displays itself in sadomasochistic expressions. (Each of them asks to be hit in moments of intimacy.) Mom keeps inserting herself into the action, if only to offer vivid descriptions of Julian's nonstop defecation as an infant. Once everyone turns up in Mexico, both Julia and DT offer vaporous, vaguely philosophical descriptions of each of their senses of malaise.

For example, Julian says, "Did you know -- inside of each of us is the final page of a book. No one has read that book, but it's a book of the world and there's an ending foretold in each of us. Sometimes we get a glimpse -- a few vivid lines, a few striking images -- Look! -- but how are we to know what to make of all that? How, in the end, are we each to know our role?" DT, recalling a childhood experience, says, "At the time it felt like I was making the acquaintance of the possibility of private meaning, the idea that meaning could be my own, and private, which is to say, the possibility of poetry: Now it feels like I was actually learning that it has nothing to do with private meaning, that the world really just is as it is, that there is nothing sacred in Things as They Are, that Things as They Are can be indifferent to little boys in a country that doesn't feel like their own..." The speech follows a wandering parth for several more lines without acquiring anything in the way of impact.

Brief Chronicle has moments when the writing acquires a specificity, even a ferocity, that grabs one's attention, for example, when Mom says, "Look at all the big box stores. Their roofs have been peeled back and big fistfuls of their merchandise strewn across the parking lots. Look at all the buildings with their windows punched in like popped eyeballs." Julian's description of the multicultural joys of Baltimore feels like a wicked comment on unconscious white-male superiority. There are also random comments, some of them mordant, about ecotourism, the repellent qualities of Barnes and Noble stores, and allusions to immigration, alienation, hard times, and random violence. Borinsky seems to be reaching for a state-of-the-nation play, but, in addition to the deficit of meaningful action, the script overall lacks color and imagination. And, for all their garrulousness, the characters remain opaque. When Julian confesses that he fears he is "a loveless monster," my first thought was, How would anyone know?

Even more curious is the presentation, informed by the actors' deadpan delivery, in which actions are described rather than played out, using dialogue that constantly reaches for resonance beyond the world of the play. Watching it, it is hard to avoid thinking of such mid-twentieth-century works of absurdism as Edward Albee's The American Dream. Rather more puzzling is how a supposedly adventurous work of 2019 could be written in a style that was out of date by 1965.

The rest of the cast includes Susanna Stahlmann and Janice Amaya, solid as Julian and DT, and Lindsay Head as a narrator figure who speaks stage directions into a mic, another tired idea. Head, working with Jesse Kovarsky, also choreographed the movement sequences, including a "folkloric dance" that is supposed to represent clueless cultural appropriation or something. The sound design, by Peter Mills Weiss, also effectively blends a number of musical tracks, including band music, with effects like ocean surf and seagulls.

For a play underpinned in part by violence and hatred, Brief Chronicle, Books 6-8 is a surprisingly wan experience. Borinsky is content to enumerate a number of social ills and psychological/philosophical conundrums, which is not the same thing as dramatizing them. "What are we going to make of this American kingdom?" Mom asks at one point. Based on the evidence offered here, I haven't the faintest idea.--David Barbour

(3 June 2019)

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