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Theatre in Review: The Domino Heart (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble Online)

Matthew Edison's play is a triptych of sorrow, an account of human hearts critically wounded by the withdrawal of love. A trio of characters are linked by a heart -- a real, physical organ -- that suddenly becomes available for a transplant. (There's more to it but, because the play's title alludes to a medical procedure that will be unknown to many, I'll let you discover the rest.) Edison's characters also share a gnawing sense of guilt over past sins; that they are complicit in, but not entirely responsible for, the consequences of their deeds somehow doesn't matter; when it comes to self-reproach, they're pros.

First up is Cara, who is newly widowed following her husband's death in a grisly car accident. Her loss is still raw and, downing one glass of wine after another, she confesses to the affair that irreparably damaged her marriage and, perhaps, led to the fatal accident. (The reasons for this betrayal need deeper investigation if she isn't to come off as a frivolous troublemaker.) As characters go, Cara is a tough sell -- for all her performative agony, she doesn't seem to recognize the extent to which she is the author of her problems -- and it might be better if Jessica Crandall played more strenuously against her weepier qualities. And yet, this monologue is often oddly arresting; Cara is a kind of human car wreck and it's hard to look away.

Cara is followed by Mortimer, a 70-ish minister keeping a night watch in his hospital room hours before he is to receive a new heart. Mortimer, a kindly and deeply thoughtful sort, has had decades to contemplate the effects of love and its absence; indeed, he is still doing penance for betraying a friend half a century earlier. (He also admits to willfully ignoring the young lady's suffering, which was in plain view; this may be his greatest crime.) His dark night of the soul has its affecting moments, but it gradually expands to the point that it comes to resemble a Sunday sermon. Until then, Craig Anthony Bannister's performance is ingratiating, but this sequence reveals Edison's penchant for lecturing the audience.

Interestingly, the most compelling character is the wickedest: Leo is a cynical, manipulative advertising executive (and part-time arbitrageur) who revels in his work to an unholy degree. In the play's liveliest passage, he walks us through the creation of an auto commercial heavily freighted with emotional signifiers designed to bring in the suckers. Leo -- who, incidentally, is an experienced corporate infighter -- has recently had a transplant, as evidenced by the vertical scar on his chest. But he continues to indulge in self-destructive behavior -- boozing, smoking, and devouring fatty foods while neglecting his medicine -- for reasons that are buried in the ghastly circumstances of his conception and his hardscrabble youth. John Consentino skillfully shatters Leo's assured fa├žade, revealing the festering wounds underneath.

It's in Leo's monologue that Edison's dramatic pattern finally comes clear: All three characters need to believe that their actions, however reprehensible, have some meaning, however malign; the mystery of existence is intolerable to them. Has Cara brought disaster on her innocent, loving spouse? Is a lifetime of good deeds enough for Mortimer to find forgiveness for his youthful failures? Can Leo justify his very existence beyond the pursuit of money and pleasure? The characters are in search of God or, at least, a coherent universe, yet redemption seems beyond their grasp. Whatever else The Domino Heart is, it presents a kind of vision of hell.

As you can probably tell, I'm deeply conflicted: The Domino Heart is alternately gripping and grating, at times infuriating. It's also hard to shake off. As a study of the many ways people find to torture themselves, it has a certain ugly vitality. But more than once you might yourself telling Cara, Mortimer, and Leo to get over themselves. If you see it, be prepared to argue with yourself. -- David Barbour

(19 February 2021)

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