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Theatre in Review: The Underlying Chris/Fefu and Her Friends

Top: Nidra Sous Le Terre, Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Carmen Zilles. Photo: Henry Grossman.

Will Eno's apparent yen to be a Thornton Wilder for the twenty-first century reaches its apex in The Underlying Chris (at Second Stage), which uses a battery of theatrical devices to tell the tale of an unremarkable life. The title character is first presented in a crib, tended by his mother. She is on the phone to the doctor's office, worried about a possible infant back ailment; the boy's father passes through, and, after some nothing-special conversation, exits. We hear a crash and the mother, worried, goes to investigate. Suddenly, it is ten years later; the young Chris enters with his Polish nanny, and more chitchat ensues, touching on Chris' fondness for swimming and the death of his father. His mother is out, running errands. The phone rings. "Chris, they ask if you are sitting down," the nanny says. Next, it is three or four years later and Chris (now Christine), is sitting in a hospital bed, having gotten a concussion from diving. While Justine, her legal guardian, looks on, Chris is examined by a doctor. Chris and Justine have a fairly spiky relationship, but never mind; if you think the latter will last one more scene, you haven't grasped the pattern the author has in mind.

And so it goes: Chris -- who, from scene to scene, is male or female, black or white -- is abandoned, adopted, married, and divorced. He/she is a competitive swimmer, a medical student, a therapist, a community theatre performer, and a retiree. The life of the character is one of constant change, proceeding from one stage to the next before arriving at the inevitable end. The point seems to echo the third act of Our Town, in which Emily Webb Gibbs, the young housewife who dies in childbirth, looks back from the grave, realizing poignantly that life goes by in a flash, that we never fully appreciate the miracle of existence, and, anyway, each of us is but a grain of sand in an infinitely large hourglass.

I can't argue with any of these points -- not at this age -- but all of them have been made, much more forcefully, before. As a result, The Underlying Chris comes off as a rather distant and unimpressive cousin to such Wilder works as Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. Indeed, Eno's efforts to universalize the title character works against him; his subdivision plan, parceling Chris out to different actors, allows us to follow him/her through the seven ages of man, but it prevents a recognizable person from coming into focus; Chris remains a collection of details -- the back pain, the love of swimming, the multiple careers -- that never coalesce into anything more. It doesn't help that Chris moves passively through life, a piece of driftwood caught in the stream of time, offering little more than wry commentary as the years elapse; there are few plays as serenely uninterested in drama as this one.

The action is spiked with mild throwaway jokes that provide a bit of amusement. At his best, Eno has a sly deadpan penchant for comic bits that often take a few seconds to detonate. An unctuous radio host, announcing the next segment of his show, adds, "But, before that: We all know how aromatic candles are made, but have you ever wondered why?" A bemused doctor says, "I look at almost anything humans do, and I just think, Helmets. Everyone should be wearing helmets for this." Certain bits come with extra added editorializing: The theatre production in which Chris appears is titled The Thread We're Hanging From.

The director, Kenny Leon, is unable to make much of the play's loose chronicle structure; the piece moves smoothly enough but without bite or ruefulness or -- surprisingly -- much sense of time elapsing. Each member of the cast nimbly takes on multiple roles. Isabella Russo, who racked up some of the biggest laughs offered in School of Rock, uses her deadpan manner to good effect, especially as the sarcastic teenage Chris. Hannah Cabell cycles capably through a number of roles, especially Chris' exhausted mother and, later, unwilling guardian. Lizbeth Mackay is, briefly, touching in Chris' encounter with a grandson, and she amuses as a faintly officious DMV clerk. Michael Countryman wrings all the wry humor to be gotten out of that radio host.

A play that takes place in no specific location over an undefined period of time is not easy to design, and it cannot be said that the creative team has responded in inspired fashion. The set designer, Arnulfo Maldonaldo, has devised a system of wagons that deliver one characterless space after another, although there is a nice moment when a stage set, defined by a couple of pasteboard trees, gives way to a realistic park scene. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting reshapes the space without adding any visual distinction. Dede Ayite's costumes don't really suggest the passage of time; then again, how could they? The play spans roughly eighty years, but the characters remain in an eternal present. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is rather better, offering a fairly constant stream of effects that include barking dogs, offstage noises, sirens, and children singing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

Near the end, as Chris becomes frail, then blind, and then deceased, we are meant to feel something for the character's passage through life. But the play's ideas are largely banalities, lacking the penetrating, Olympian quality of Wilder's gaze. Holding an infant, Chris says, "A hundred people are holding you right now. A long line of creatures marched out of the sea so I could hold you right now. Our fins turned into arms so I could hold you tight. So that you may then hold whoever's in need of holding. And that's the meaning of the world." Such sentiments might catch one's heart if Chris were anything other than a passive vessel for life's vicissitudes. Looking into Chris' grave, someone says, "There's a person down there." Yes, but not a very interesting one.

In contrast, Fefu and Her Friends, at Theatre for a New Audience, is a mandarin affair, but a far more fascinating one. María Irene Fornés' play convenes eight female friends at a New England house for a series of steamy flirtations, practical jokes, power games, and disturbing revelations. (The action is set in a stylized version of 1935, although the world of the play often seems hermetically sealed.) Not seen in New York since its 1977 debut, it is most famous for its middle sequence, in which the audience departs from its assigned seating to move through several rooms of hostess Fefu's house.

Fornés, a lion of the avant-garde who died in 2018, was nothing if not a formal innovator, but in these days of Sleep No More and its many imitators, the movable feast aspect is the least interesting thing in the production. Certainly, set designer Adam Rigg provides a number of evocatively detailed locations, including a lawn, kitchen, library, and -- most intriguingly -- a bedroom viewed by looking down through a transparent section of the main stage deck. Rigg does sterling work here, delivering a series of intensively detailed spaces marked by bold color ideas, wild wallpaper patterns, and plenty of bric-a-brac. Even in a well-staged production such as this, however, moving a hundred or more spectators around is a lot of work; the main effect of this no-longer-innovative device is to slow down the action.

Still, whichever room one is in, one can enjoy the work of the dazzling ensemble. The role of Fefu allows Amelia Workman to make a brilliant display of artifice, lording over her guests with a ferocious bonhomie that is not to be trusted. (Displaying her sporting nature, Fefu pulls out a rifle and, aiming it through the French doors, takes a shot at her husband; as she genially explains, it's a game they regularly play.) Dressed in a series of chic pantsuits, with bobbed hair that Louise Brooks might envy, Workman has a positively alarming way of fixing her stare on a guest, leaning over at a forty-five-degree angle and offering an all-devouring smile; hers is the charm that kills. Equally striking is Brittany Bradford as Julia, confined to a wheelchair because of misadventure, some kind of sinister police action, or deep-dyed neurosis -- I lean toward the third option, but you can take your pick - who is prone to terrible memories and/or fantasies of torture. Others making fine contributions include Juliana Canfield as an innocent young thing who panics whenever in Fefu's presence; Helen Cespedes, offering a show-stopping oratorical excerpt from an essay by the American actress and educator Emma Sheridan Fry; and Jennifer Lim as the guest most accustomed to Fefu's outrageous home entertaining ideas. But Ronete Levnson, Lindsay Rico, and Carmen Zilles like the others, have also faultlessly zoomed in on the author's peculiar wavelength.

And although one is often hard-pressed to tell where Fefu and Her Friends is going, it is never dull, not even for a second, in part because of the playwright's adamantine style -- it's rather like a country house comedy by Maugham or Coward crossed with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, plus a dash of Pinter -- and partly because the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, and her company create a fully realized, self-contained world; thanks to them, every word uttered in this plushly decorated social battleground rings true. Completing the look of the production are Montana Levi Blanco's extravagant twists on period fashions and Jane Cox's stunning lighting, which floods the stage with clarifying sunlight. Palmer Hefferan's accomplished sound design includes the use of headphones in one scene.

In comparison to The Underlying Chris, which lays its cards on the table, face up, leaving one wondering if that's all there is, Fefu and Her Friends provides many fascinating mysteries. It is an evening of glitteringly arranged social chaos, in which high comedy keeps company with many darker undertones. Even at its most enigmatic, the richly allusive text provokes with its intimations regarding women, privilege, power, and sexuality. Unlike many avant-garde works of another era, it hasn't aged a day. --David Barbour

(27 November 2019)

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