There’s gorgeous writing and design in “Time Is the Mercy of Eternity,” but the two don’t fit together — so the production only hints at the power of Deb Margolin’s four short plays. Creating a larger connection that encompasses all four parts, “Time” explores how love and violence affect the body, with constant talk of fingers, hands and legs, and three segments that hinge on characters using their bodies in unexpected ways.
At first, characters repress their feelings until they explode with desperation, but in the finale, the emotional release results in love. It’s a generous conclusion, suggesting animal instincts can be nourishing, even though they often tear us down.
But even the violence in this production is framed by kindness and sympathy. In “When They Quiet Down I Start,” a bus driver (Curzon Dobell) explains his role in the afterlife, carting souls between heaven and hell. We learn he was a suicide bomber, though he did it to escape the frightening world and not to earn 72 virgins.
Margolin makes political jokes about the quest for martyrdom — turns out the virgins aren’t what they seem — but her larger point is the driver himself: He’s an average guy, played by Dobell as a charming, blue-collar type who enjoys a good story. He felt awkward in his own skin and made a choice with serious consequences.
There’s a similar empathy in “The Rich Silk of It,” which imagines the last, fractured thoughts of a young woman (Claire Siebers) murdered by her fiance (Khris Lewin). The overlapping scenes essentially let her forgive him, since they reveal him as a man so lonely that he needs to live inside another person.
“Silk” ultimately becomes a self-conscious exercise in putting “the mind” onstage, with a jumble of short scenes reducing complicated ideas to gimmicks. (The man is conflicted, for instance, so Lewin plays multiple characters in the same scene.) Still, Margolin manages some touching speeches about the need for human connection.
Along with the script, the production’s other major asset is Lisa Kron, who brings raw, physical life to both her roles. In “Clarisse and Larmon,” she’s a mother whose son has died at war. Now all she has is a photograph of his remaining body parts: a leg, a shin, a bit of chin. While her husband (Dobell) spits and fumes, she responds with reverent wonder, amazed at how viciously her child was destroyed.
The softness of Kron’s perf is devastating, particularly when she delivers a remarkable speech about bathing her infant child in a birdbath. When Clarisse finally breaks down, her actions clearly spring from the same love that kept her rapt a moment before.
In the concluding play that gives the program its title, Kron finds sweet, funny passion in a woman who refuses to leave a bed in a department store. Her perf builds like a wave, until her cracked logic crashes over a saleswoman (Siebers) unable to resist her anymore. Carried by Kron’s precision, the segment is moving but not gooey.
Yet one senses these plays could do more, especially since Zack Sultan’s video and Geo Wyeth’s sound design drop a curtain over the show. Sultan, for instance, transitions between pieces by projecting old photographs, a ticking clock and ornate title cards. Wyeth adds an eerie piano score, using abstract clanging sounds and flourishes of music throughout the show.
These elements are polished in Marc Stuart Weitz’s production, but they are also cold and controlled, negating Margolin’s more visceral interest in the body. Her language, no matter how poetic, always leads to a physical catharsis, while the moody images and sound create a sense of intellectual remove. If it’s going to honor the writing, the design needs some dirt on its hands.