Well — wow! Failed plays are by no means scarce, even on established Off Broadway stages, but it takes a singular talent to concoct a misfire as bizarre as “This Thing of Darkness,” the theatrical equivalent of a belly flop from an Olympic diving platform. Actually, there are two talents to credit here: the ever-singular Craig Lucas, who also directs, shares authorship with relative newcomer David Schulner on this apocalyptic one-act depicting the dark odyssey of a pair of college chums whose destinies become complexly intertwined.
John McDermott’s set, a rustic retreat in New England, is a bit too naturalistic for this mystically inclined play, but at least it gives us something tangible to hang on to. Scene one introduces vaguely disaffected recent college grads Abbey (Chris Messina) and Donald (Daniel Eric Gold). They’re killing time on their mutual birthday by making slacker talk and grisly observations. “Have you noticed how practically every single woman over 60 starts to look like a lesbian?” jokes Donald. “And men, too, old men, start getting soft and weepy, like eunuchs. It’s like they drift toward each other and meet in the middle.” Later, they more earnestly argue over their dedication to each other and the inevitable changes that life brings: “Somewhere along the line, maybe we lose ourselves.”
Abbey is a bit of a head case: He’s been on pills since childhood, and when they ran out on graduation day he started chewing his fingernails and didn’t stop until he hit bone; he might have kept going had he foreseen some of the goings-on in the play’s latter scenes. The play’s intimations of homoeroticism and gender-blending, and its more amorphous themes of change, decay and mutation, all come woozily to the fore.
A quarter-century has passed by scene two, and now the grown Abbey (played by Mary McCann — mother in scene one) has two college-age sons, Skim and Reef (played by Messina and Gold). Honoring a promise made in scene one to reunite on their birthdays, Donald (Thomas Jay Ryan, who played Abbey’s dad in scene one) arrives from New Zealand and the old buddies promptly begin exchanging ruminations on the difficulties of loving and aging and the hell-in-a-hand-basket nature of the post-postmodern world. (There are some techno advantages, however: Donald now has a cell phone installed in his brain, it seems, and disconcertingly takes calls on it in the middle of his heart-to-heart with Abbey.)
Abbey is despairing at his sons’ plans to head off to Africa to try to end civil war. They’re part of the Bonobo movement, a cult that take its cue from a primate culture and believes sex is the answer to the corruption and violence of civilization. The boys have sex with each other — and every other member of the cult, it seems. They get a little too cozy with grandpa, too (“The Waltons’ ” Ralph Waite — condolences!), when he descends from the attic with his wife (Larry Keith), who is leaving him. (“My mistake was believing all that nonsense about men and women and marriage and love and forever. … People are … We’re apes,” she explains.)
The play’s dialogue veers from sour slacker humor to bleak musings on love and loneliness (“I can find no center to my life at all … I can locate no meaning or feeling that isn’t perpetually evaporating”) to airy philosophizing on the murky journey that is life in the 21st century. None of it makes an impression as arresting as the peculiarities of the plot, but the haunted mood Lucas’ production establishes rather cannily reflects the new mood of anxiety that is abroad in the world.
In the final scene, set another quarter-century later, the cabin has become a bunker sheltering the elderly Abbey and Donald, still together, from some kind of nuclear winter. Abbey’s sons are dead, it seems, but the play circles back to its beginnings, suggesting the latter scenes may be mere nightmare visions of the future visited on the young Donald and Abbey in the first.
Since the main characters have remained ciphers from start to finish, their progress from young men burdened with as many fears as hopes to elderly men watching the sun set on Western civilization isn’t exactly emotionally wrenching, despite the efforts of a fine and clearly committed cast. Keeping track of who’s who isn’t really the problem; discerning what’s the point is another matter.
Nonetheless, there is something admirable in the playwrights’ mutual desire to push theatrical storytelling in odd new directions, to seek to say something large about the painful and bewildering turns life takes. The play, alas, is as bewildering as its subject — it’s a “thing of darkness” itself — but unlike so many theatrical misfires, it manages to fail in a rather fascinating way.