The group behind the world premiere of Kate E. Ryan’s “Mark Smith,” 13P, is a collective of playwrights who want to see their work produced instead of passed forever through development workshops and readings. The idea is to let plays exist, even if they haven’t been fine-tuned to market-friendly perfection.
So even though it feels like a working draft, “Mark Smith” — a study of the hopelessly normal lives of the eponymous rock star’s friends and family — crackles with the energy of experimentation.
Since it plays mostly with silence, space and visuals, it’s exactly the kind of script that needs a production (instead of a table read) to let the playwright see how her vision translates to the stage.
With any luck, 13P’s early incarnation will lead to a later version that adds narrative cohesion to Ryan’s distinctive approach to character and language.
The plot, such as it is, is structured to resemble a documentary, with an unseen filmmaker asking the questions. Actors stand alone in the various bedrooms, offices and kitchens of Ken Nintzel’s set, answering questions about Mark or discussing their own lives.
Ryan crafts several memorable characters, including Mark’s heartbreaking sister, whose own musical dreams got traded in for staying at home with her mother, and his high school music teacher, who prefers discussing his homemade instruments. (Actors play multiple roles, and the program doesn’t indicate who’s in which part.)
But as affecting as they are, these characters aren’t what lasts. It’s the production style that makes the overwhelming impression, which suggests an abundance of dark secrets beneath the passionless responses to the filmmaker’s questions.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll and team make the show preternaturally serious. All lines are delivered in flat, emotionless tones, and a mournful piano tune abruptly cuts off the short scenes. During scene changes, everyone scurries through half-light, and shadows encroach during monologues.
This tone is so well maintained that even in its funniest moments, “Mark Smith” is weighted with sadness. And the interplay of music and movement (or silence and movement, or noise and stillness) often lends an undeniable beauty to the sorrow.
At first, stylistic panache compensates for lack of narrative. The production is so in control of itself that it’s easy to dismiss one’s confusion about what’s happening. Why not revel in, say, Mark’s mother’s weird phrasing or his sister’s unexplained rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose?” Surely this well-crafted strangeness will lead somewhere.
But it doesn’t. There’s never a moment when the arbitrary choices gel into something coherent. The play ultimately becomes an exercise in randomness for its own sake.
Ryan repeats too many characters and images to suggest this is what she really wants. She seems to be aiming for some kind of statement about how talented people can wither behind someone else’s success. But as written, the play evokes too many questions (Which character was that? What happened to the filmmaker? Was that a dream sequence?) that distract from that purpose.
For her next draft, Ryan needs to craft a consistency in images, characters or structure that can keep her play’s mystery from becoming a muddle.