Do you read philosophy in the hopes it will get funnier as you go along? Have you ever hidden a smile while perusing your dog-eared copy of “Existentialism and Human Emotions?” Are your Marxist inclinations torn between Groucho and Karl? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” head down to the Flea for “Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations,” Will Eno’s five fitfully hilarious, prosy coruscations on the subject of what on earth it all means.
Eno is best known for the surprise hit, “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” an extended monologue that played Off Broadway in 2005. Nobody can riff on a mode of address quite like him — an obscure talent, sure, but one that he puts to good use right away with the evening’s opening piece, “Behold the Coach in a Blazer, Uninsured.”
It starts off as something we’ve all heard before: a rambling, quasi-articulate press conference speech by the coach (Brian Hutchinson) of a losing team. There’s talk of “a building year,” and much made of “the fans,” but in a subtle transitional moment, the coach is putting a brave face on a year of his life, not just a season of baseball (or football, or whatever), that didn’t go the way he planned.
“We suffered some losses, yes, we suffered some, last season,” he says. It’s an odd-sounding statement, but this is a perfect forum for the character’s anguish — how many coaches do you know who can distinguish themselves from their teams, anyway?
“Behold the Coach” and “Tragedy: a tragedy,” an excerpt from a play about newscasters not presented here, were both published in Harper’s, adding fuel to the fear that Eno will inevitably decide the place for a talented prose stylist is the page, not the stage.
But after an hour at the Flea, it’s clear he has written this stuff for the uncontrollable magic that speech and inflection work on a text. His sorcerers, Hutchinson and Marisa Tomei, apply that magic with impressive precision — doubtless thanks in large part to director Jim Simpson. But the tantalization of an accident or a slip of the tongue keeps us riveted to these sad, funny people.
The two actors get their first chance to bounce off one another in “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain,” two overlapping video-dating monologues that betray matching cases of the blues. Eno gets the most laughs out of this one — Tomei itemizes her character’s dislikes thusly: “rudeness, untimely remarks, bossy… bossiness, ostentation. Also, nerve damage and heart disease.”
Tomei stays funny, which is a good thing, since the next piece, “Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently” is literally a downer. A plane crash has killed passengers, and the Spokeswoman (Tomei) has to offer official comfort. “Gravity was a factor,” she informs us somberly. It’s a factor here, too, mostly because these plays exist in its defiance.
“The Bully Composition” is the only one of these plays New Yorkers may have seen before, and it was a little better at the Naked Angels one-act festival last year, where it was presented right after the intermission and its central gag — a photographer and his assistant photograph the audience — generated some genuine uncertainty. It’s still a terrific piece, but preceded by three plays in the same tone, it lacks the element of surprise.
Speaking of surprise, the last play, “Oh, the Humanity” does something so simple it’s not worth describing because it wouldn’t even sound like a spoiler. The meta-jokes continue, but the playlet’s conclusions are more optimistic, even celebratory than the accompanying works.
It ends leaving you with a sort of overstuffed feeling, as though a five-course meal has just been served — odd, for a mere hour in the theater. “We had to look hard at a few things,” to quote the Coach. “And, surprise surprise, we found that they looked hard back.”