"The Circle of Life"
In The Underlying Chris, Will Eno (The Realistic Joneses, The Open House) has crafted another thoughtful, intellectually interesting, theatrically quirky play driven by a tricky premise. In this one, at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, he imagines the life cycle of a representative human being, from the cradle to the grave, in a series of 11 vignettes (following a prologue) acted by an 11-member company smoothly directed by Kenny Leon.
You are trillions of cells going this way and that. Hundreds of billions of cells die and get born in you, everyday. That’s probably the size of your big toe, coming and going, everyday.
To emphasize this, “Chris” appears in each succeeding scene as either male or female, white or otherwise, which also represents his/her (no “theys,” “theys,” or “thems”) universality. The eponymous name keeps changing, too: Chris, Christine, Kristin, Christopher, Christoph, Christiana, Topher, Krista, Kris, and Kit, although you’d need to see the script to separate some of these from their homonyms. Each actor—Isabella Russo, Lenne Klingaman, Nidra Sous La Terre, Hannah Cabell, Howard Overshown, Michael Countryman, Lizbeth Mackay, Luis Vega, Denise Burse, and Charles Turner—gets to play a version of Chris.
Meanwhile, the other characters in Chris’s life similarly undergo such transformations. Once the idea kicks in, you spend more or less time watching each succeeding scene figuring out who is who, as the actors shift from role to role, different ones taking on the same characters as new ones are introduced. It’s a bit complicated at first, but you eventually get the hang of it. Unfortunately, the payoff is incommensurate with the effort.
Eno uses an Our Town-like speech by Christine (Isabella Russo), a precocious, prepubescent girl in a man’s suit, to introduce the action. Her explanation informs us that the play will be about things like identity and change, or the essence, spirit, or mystery of a life, how it’s shaped, and maybe even what it means. She also suggests that life’s happenings are akin to a twitch in one’s back caused by “a tiny little movement in the just-wrong direction.”
The 90-minute play itself soon will show us, for example, how a father’s fondness for flying his infant about might inspire that child to practice diving; how the tragic loss of a child’s parents affects their future; how a diving accident could lead to an orphan’s adoption; how a medical student’s chance encounter with a veterinarian might lead to marriage and a career-changing decision, and so forth. Through it all, however, the “underlying” person—including back pains that began in infancy—remains the same.
As Chris ages, leaving adolescence and diving behind to become a tennis player (good enough to warrant a radio interview), he/she gets married (for a time, at least), becomes a psychologist, has a daughter (and, later, a grandchild), moves into a new office, takes up acting, fails a driver’s license eye test, celebrates a birthday at a nursing home, collapses while waiting for therapy, and is buried. It’s a life, an ordinary, middle-class one, filled with the sadness and pleasure of any life, made theatrically interesting more by how it’s expressed than by what it contains.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s efficient set—mainly units that slide in and out—tells us just as much as we need to know about each locale, sometimes realistically, sometimes with a mere hint or two. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting helps greatly, as do Dede Ayite’s costumes, which avoid defining any moment too precisely by a particular period.
While very well-acted by an ensemble—each playing more than one role—ranging across the years in age and stage experience, nothing we see is particularly moving since the playwright’s conceit separates us intellectually from becoming deeply invested in what happens. Eno’s writing, with its dollops of humor, bon mot-like profundities, and “Where’s that from?” quotations, is skillful enough to keep us curious, but the events of this universal life prevent anything from being especially surprising. Of course, the ending, despite eccentricities in its depiction, is a foregone conclusion.
Having the characters continually represented by actors of differing ages, genders, and races dissipates our interest in them as well-defined persons. Thus, much of the time we’re responding more to the playwright’s contrivances than to his people and events, making the experience more cerebral than emotional.
Will Eno has found a diverting device to illuminate a human life. The underlying problem of The Underlying Chris, however, is that Chris’s life is not a particularly unusual one and, apart from the charm or humor of this or that moment in its enactment, not even a clever gimmick can compel continued interest in it. To do that, you'd need Thornton Wilder.
Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through December 15