They have forgotten us, pines a Soviet cosmonaut as he and his partner slowly, relentlessly orbit Earth, unable to communicate with the rest of humanity down below. Meanwhile, those on the ground look up for meaning, wondering whether someone is out there, watching us mostly unable to make emotional contact with the person standing right next to them. A clever metaphor in motion, David Grieg’s play “The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union,” receiving its American premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, can at times be achingly evocative, especially early on. Lyrical writing, a gorgeously designed set and acting that captures the quirky peculiarities of a global cast of characters all contribute to a first act that presents the promise of a masterly, mature and important work. But in the second half, the characters become static, figuratively, and their musings become repetitive and dreary. What we’re left with is a mood piece, affecting but disappointingly dry.
This now makes two shows, running simultaneously in the La Jolla Playhouse’s two spaces that start strong and finish in an unfulfilling fashion. “Cosmonaut,” though, is a lot more memorable than “Sheridan,” and its dramatic poetry is more accomplished. Scottish playwright Grieg has a unique voice, and director Neel Keller — with help from his highly creative design team, especially set designer Mark Wendland — delivers imagery that falls somewhere between “Dr. Strangelove” and Robert Wilson.
An egg-shaped steel cage, the cosmonaut’s spaceship revolves in a circle over the playing space. Below, a large rolling box, also metal, is the primary focus, representing a dance club in London at one moment and the shuttered windows of a home in Edinburgh the next. A turquoise chaise and table serve as hang-outs in different cities; a big, colorful map on the back wall gives us a sense of the global scope of the piece, with a list of cities running down next to it. A satellite dish joins the fray in the second act, the perfect emblem of the modern age, evoking how our technological world is somehow becoming conflated and yet more lonely at the same time.
It’s a problem, though, when the set is ultimately more interesting than the storylines, which interweave but don’t really pick up much steam. The characters, whom Grieg delineates with eccentric uses of language, include a married couple in Edinburgh (Mark Nelson and Gretchen Lee Krich), their pregnant policewoman neighbor (Irina Bjorkland), the husband’s Russian mistress in London (also Bjorklund), who happens to be one of the cosmonaut’s daughters; and an elderly relative of the wife (Neil Vipond), who can’t even manage to expel a complete sentence. There’s also a Norwegian World Bank official and a series of bartenders and waiters (French, English, Scottish), all played by John Feltch, and a French researcher (Nelson again) who’s convinced he can communicate with extra-terrestrials if only he can find the right words or music. Rounding out the cast are our lost, revolving cosmonauts (Kurt Fuller and Jan Triska).
As the play proceeds, Grieg almost seems to become disinterested in his characters as people; they start seeming like pure functionaries, spouting one more poetic monologue about their existential pains. There’s a lot of very pretty talk about how people don’t really talk to each other. For quite some time, it’s genuinely interesting to listen to, but once the show goes well past two hours, we begin to sympathize a bit more with one character’s claim: “Silence is heroic.”