A tropical island is a familiar symbol of escape, but it's miles away from the ordinary as imagined in the witty, wacky but still weighty misanthropic romp "Aruba." An import from last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Rob Evans' play achieves that rare trifecta: It's born of a hyperactive mind, a playful heart and a socially conscious soul.
A tropical island is a familiar symbol of escape, but it’s miles away from the ordinary as imagined in the witty, wacky but still weighty misanthropic romp “Aruba.” An import from last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Rob Evans’ play achieves that rare trifecta: It’s born of a hyperactive mind, a playful heart and a socially conscious soul.In three interconnected London-set vignettes, three actors play more than a dozen main and supporting roles. In each seg, a different actor takes the spotlight to represent a modern type: Mark (Ben Lewis) is a go-getting ad exec shaken by a suicide he witnesses accidentally; Darren (Kieran Fay) is an aging personal trainer who watches his girlfriend, and his youth, slip away; and Nikki (Sophie Fletcher) is an Eleanor Rigby-ish young spinster devoid of drive or personality. Around the main characters, in shoe stores, ad agencies, gyms and other venues of modern life, sit the insensitive and the self-absorbed. As the main characters stumble about their lives in what are essentially comic set pieces, they seek to find a shred of humanity while supporting characters design meaningless ad campaigns, guzzle “Al Pacinos” with soy milk and get endlessly in shape. (“I haven’t eaten since March.” “Yes, but are you breathing a lot lately?”) Modern life is both the prison that traps a reflective soul and the escape for the narcissistic one. (Playwright Evans is also a big believer in equal-opportunity skewering; he spoofs illiterate sneaker salespeople with as much relish as he does yuppies.) The throughline is Aruba, a place the characters all seem to dream about or end up in, and which symbolizes an escape from the modern world’s inscrutable demands. The island alternately represents resignation, insanity and, ultimately, the great tropical resort in the sky — though with none of the metaphysical self-importance that might bog down a lesser play. Like the costumes and other elements in this exuberant production, the symbolism of a Caribbean island conceals the peculiarly English bleakness underneath. Aruba may be a sunny place depicted with bouncy music and falling coconuts, but it’s very far away indeed (and can be reached only in death anyway). But this all makes “Aruba” sounds a lot more serious than it is. With elaborately choreographed wackiness, the show draws on influences ranging from modern dance (in the stylized movements of the actors, perhaps mimicking the robotic yuppies it sends up) to Monty Python sketch comedy. There’s not a single piece of scenery, and yet the ebullient score, pastel costumes and suggestive lighting capture a remarkable range of emotions. At Edinburgh last year, the small stage at a theater in the city’s Pleasance courtyard didn’t allow for as much physical comedy or chaos; the Ohio Theater offers no such problem. Evans’ writing is not above a cheap shot or a broad stroke, especially through some of the stock working-class characters, but the acting is so deft that even these go over easily. Lewis, in particular, is a standout. And the play can slip inexplicably into futuristic references to biometric fingerprints and personality transplants, for example. Yet it still manages to feels sharply relevant, both as a critique of the endless retailing of youth (depicted by the recurring theme of a treadmill) and of modern culture’s illusion of choice. When Nikki is presented with a consumer survey, she is shown a picture of Princess Diana and asked to rate whether she likes, really likes or quite likes it. She answers this question as she does every other: “No opinion.” In its low-key but tart way, “Aruba” shines as the type of show Off Broadway was made for. It doesn’t need a Pulitzer Prize-winning script to realize its considerable thematic ambition, nor an elaborate budget to give a precise sense of milieu. It just, entertainingly but assuredly, whisks you away.