Manbites Dog Theater’s regional premiere of Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations, a provocative program of five short plays by Brooklyn, NY-based playwright Will Eno, is an often amusing but ultimately overlong wallow in existential angst. Under the sure-handed direction of Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer, who keeps all his actors onstage for the entire show, various and sundry vividly drawn 21st century characters perform a verbal striptease for the audience’s amusement. They lay bare their souls – often in very public places — by simultaneously giving voice to their uncensored internal monologues as well as their much more circumspect external monologues. The only problem is, some of these characters wear out their welcome long before their sketches are over.
Oh, the Humanity, which is performed without an intermission, begins with “Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured,” which is set a press conference. The beleaguered and somewhat bewildered middle-aged title character, impersonated with great empathy by David Berberian, seems to be on the verge of an on-camera nervous breakdown as he turns his media availability into a no-holds-barred confessional as he tries to explain away a succession of losing seasons that are about to cost him his job. Never has abject misery been so funny, but the coach rambles on and on, replowing the same conversational ground and he is a little too vague about the details of the ongoing coaching catastrophe.
In “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain,” Chris Burner and Lormarev C. Jones sketch indelible portraits of a horribly mismatched pair who decide to give video dating a try, and seem destined to find each other online. He’s selfish and self-absorbed and has some of the hallmarks of a serial killer; she’s a sensitive soul and a bit of a flake who would be horrified if she knew about his cruelty to animals. They don’t seem destined to amble off into the sunset together, singing “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).”
In “Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently,” a bespectacled Katja Hill adds a sharply etched cameo as an earnest corporate crisis manager for Country Air who must inform friends and family that a Country Air jet carrying their loved ones has crashed and that there were no survivors. Although she knows that her employer is doing everything possible to minimize its financial liability, she must convince the friends and family of the deceased that the corporation empathizes with their loss.
In “The Bully Composition,” taciturn professional photographer Derrick Ivey and his talkative assistant Lance Waycaster try to recreate a historic group photograph of American troops, taken in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, using the audiences as models for the various combatants and non-combatants. But, first, what were the people in the picture doing when the fin-de-siècle photographer snapped their picture for posterity. Is it a before or after picture of the famous charge up San Juan Hill, led by future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
The evening’s fifth and final segment is “Oh, the Humanity,” with Chris Burner and Katja Hill playing an uncomfortable couple — tense with unresolved issues — who think they are on their way to a family event — either her niece’s christening or his father’s funeral, they’re not sure which — when they have car trouble. They discover that the “automobile” in which they were riding is merely a couple of kitchen chairs. Then a stranger played by Derrick Ivey compounds their confusion with his mysterious appearance.
Director Jeff Storer elicits personable performances from each of his six cast members, several of whom play multiple roles. David Berberian, Chris Burner, and Lormarev Jones add their voices to that of strolling singer and multi-instrumentalist Bart Matthews to punctuate the performance — and smooth over scene changes — with gritty excerpts from the John Prine songbook.
Manbites Dog Theater audience members who arrive 30 to 45 minutes early for each show can also enjoy a couple of preshow performances of “Nesting,” an amusing puppet play created and performed by Torry Bend, who tells her story with stick puppets and wears their playhouse on her head.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 8th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Kate Dobbs Ariail (who awarded the show 5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/manbites-dogs-oh-the-humanity-and-other-exclamations/Content?oid=1866730; Dec. 4th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/12/04/842000/fine-cast-bold-lines-weak-frame.html; and Dec. 3rd Triangle Arts & Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/12/oh-the-humanity-and-other-exclamations-falls-flat/. (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 3rd Triangle Theater Review preview, by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/12/will-enos-oh-the-humanity-and-other-exclamations-makes-its-regional-premiere-at-manbites-dog/.)
Manbites Dog Theater presents OH, THE HUMANITY AND OTHER EXCLAMATIONS at 8:15 p.m. Dec. 11, 3:15 p.m. Dec. 12, and 8:15 p.m. Dec. 15-18 at 703 Foster Ave., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $12 weeknights and $17 Friday-Sunday ($5 students with ID and $10 weeknights and $15 seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919/682-3343 or https://www.etix.com/.
The Play: http://www.playscripts.com/play.php3?playid=735 (Playscripts, Inc.).
The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Eno (Wikipedia) and http://www.playscripts.com/author.php3?authorid=455 (Playscripts, Inc.).
The Script (sample on page 80 ff.): http://www.playscripts.com/plays/greatshortplaysvol4.pdf (Playscripts, Inc.).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.