Adam Bock’s “The Typographer’s Dream” is a striking one-act that uses the ruse of a panel discussion to explore the variable dynamics between profession, self and interpersonal relationships. Highly idiosyncratic work bears a certain resemblance to Lisa Kron’s “Well” (currently playing San Francisco), in that its combustive insights emerge gradually from pretense of an intended stage presentation driven off the rails by participants’ unruly emotions. Challenging but funny and novel miniature should attract theaters throughout the nonprofit world, not least because its cast, set and technical demands are so minimal.
The play has “started” before the house lights go down. Puttering about, clad in gray preppie duds, Dave (Michael Shipley) seems to be a crew member until he sits down at the seat marked “Stenographer” behind a long folding table. He’s soon joined by the bustling, bespectacled Annalise (Jamie Jones), who takes up the chair designated for “Geographer.” They face the audience with silent, slightly nervous poise until the harried late arrival of final panelist Margaret (Aimee Guillot), whose place card says “Typographer.”
Once settled, the trio separate explain the nature of their jobs: Wallflowerish Dave adopts a somewhat dully literal-minded mode true to a profession (court stenographer) that’s all attention to detail and no creative input.
By contrast, Annalise’s breathlessly enthusiastic, philosophical, sometimes indignant tenor speaks to a personality that enjoys leading rather than following. Her ease is visibly resented by Margaret, whose tortured attempts to articulate the moral quandaries of typography (as its subtle “interpretive” abilities can skew the purported “truth” of text) are continually stalled or interrupted by the other spiels.
Prickly stop/start rhythms of this awkward seminar are amusing, and captured in just the right degree of ever-so-slightly heightened naturalism. But just when even 70 minutes spent with squabbling lecturers on semi-interesting topics is beginning to look like too much, Bock starts dropping clues that these three are close friends, not merely colleagues for an afternoon.
An abrupt yet nimble left-turn toward “offstage” flashback finds a drunk, garrulous Annalise confronting Dave when they’re left alone at the end of a house party. She points out how his unconscious avoidance of the first person (instead always talking along the neutral lines of “You know how it is when you wake up, and then…”) crystallizes a passivity reflected in his copyist job and doormat domesticity with an out-of-control male partner. Worse, she calls him “a liar and a sneak” for avoiding conflict in all realms of life.
This is received as a profound affront, although it also gets Dave thinking. Back at the panelists’ table, Margaret’s dissatisfaction with her work — and presumably other things — explodes in an angry attack on Annalise’s high-minded tendency to tell everyone else what they should be doing. Latter responds with a memorable rant that in record time bends from defensiveness to self-criticism.
During their fight both women keep silencing timid Dave’s attempts at mediation, suggesting they’re not quite ready for him to become less proactive. But like it or not, that evolution has already begun.
Bock has a fine ear for the way people talk (which, heard onstage, can be repetitious and irritating) that, combined with “Dream’s” offbeat, non-narrative conceit, lends this play a unique air of eavesdropping on strangers’ messy private clashing.
There’s nothing epic about this work, but its microcosmic gambit is close to perfect in execution. Under Anne Kauffman’s direction, the actors in Encore Theater Company’s production couldn’t be better.
Lighting changes, a one-note background synthesizer rumble and Marilyn Yu’s spot-on costumes aside, there’s no ornamentation whatsoever — “The Typographer’s Dream” could be staged in just about any interior, the more nondescript the better.