2econd Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 15, $30-$89
In the summer of 2018, Second Stage presented the New York premiere of Tracy Letts’s magnificent Mary Page Marlowe, a ninety-minute intermissionless play in which six actresses portrayed the title character, with a few slight name changes, through eleven nonchronological scenes from her rather ordinary existence. Second Stage is currently running Will Eno’s The Underlying Chris, an extremely clever but not wholly successful eighty-minute intermissionless play in which six actors portray the title character, each time with a slightly different name, through twelve chronological scenes from Chris’s rather ordinary existence. I don’t bring this up to claim that The Underlying Chris is derivative of Mary Page Marlowe, but the similar structure and focus are uncanny as two of the theater’s best writers tackle a similar subject and format.
The Underlying Chris opens with a young girl (Isabella Russo) delivering exit information and introducing the show; she states: “As for the play, the subject is life on Earth. . . . A little more specifically, our story is — it’s a story about, let’s see . . . Identity? Change, maybe. Continuality, if that’s a word. Newness and renewal. Those are words. It’s a story about the moments that shape a life, and the people who shape a moment. And the things we don’t have names for. The essence, I guess, the spirit. And also, mystery. And, meaning.” Having set himself up for big-time responsibility, Eno then proceeds to follow the life of one person from infancy to burial, with a different actor in the title role in each scene, switching genders and color along with names as the protagonist matures from Chris, Christopher, Christine, Kris, and Kristin to Topher, Krista, Kit, Christiana, and Khris, dealing with tragedy, career choices, major and minor milestones, medical conditions, and other key moments that help determine who the character is, was, and will be.
It’s not always immediately apparent in each successive scene who the “Chris” character is, but there are several threads that continue through the narrative to maintain continuity; in addition to the protagonist’s name, some kind of take on “Chris,” they experience twinges of back pain while also referencing elements from past scenes, which involve such other figures as Dr. Rivington (Howard Overshown), nurse Gabriella (Lenne Klingaman), young Philip (Nicholas Hutchinson), veterinarian Louise (Hannah Cabell), a radio host (Michael Countryman), amateur actor Roderick (Countryman), the elderly Reggie (Charles Turner), and daughter Joan (Russo and Nidra Sous La Terre). Arnulfo Maldonado’s sets change from a living room and a café to a hospital and a park bench, sliding to one side of the stage or the other as a horizontal black curtain opens and closes (not always all the way), as if the audience blinks and time and space magically shift. “I sometimes feel surprised, being here — like I walked through a door into someone else’s life,” Krista (Lizbeth Mackay) says. And Kristin (Sous La Terre) points out, “Bodies come and go, but the spirit, that’s what I was always interested in. Or, the soul, whatever it is, people’s ideas and feelings, the part of people that moves through the world and changes but also lasts,” which gets to the heart of Eno’s central concern: not so much humanity’s physical presence but our essence, our spirit. “I can see your spirit in these pictures. I see your spirit in you,” Jenny (Cabell) tells Christiana (Denise Burse) while looking at family photographs.
Directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, the complete August Wilson Century Cycle) The Underlying Chris drags too much, repeating itself and never connecting with the audience the way it so desperately wants to, seeming longer than its eighty minutes. The large cast is fine but no one makes that necessary impact, and the pace is choppy. Eno is a brilliant writer, as shown in such previous works as Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Open House, Wakey, Wakey, and his Broadway debut, The Realistic Joneses, displaying a sharp wit and a skillful cunning in storytelling and character development, but there’s a dissociation between the plot and characters in Chris that is never resolved, keeping us at too much of a distance. We never get a firm grasp on Christopher’s identity, and neither does he, which is part of the point but also leaves a dramatic gap. It’s also a bit confusing in that the story takes place in a timeless present; over the course of eighty years, there are no visible social, political, cultural, economic, or, perhaps most evident, technical advances. “Like with evolution, and most other good ideas, we will go forward looking backward, not knowing our destination until the day we get there, or years later or never,” the girl says in her introduction. Despite some engaging moments, The Underlying Chris doesn’t quite reach its desired destination.
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