Even when you look at it backwards, life’s pleasures are hardly lasting and real connections are hard to forge, according to “Eight Days (Backwards),” a wan new comedy at the Vineyard Theater.
Playwright Jeremy Dobrish borrows not just one but two familiar theatrical conceits here. The play unspools in reverse chronological order, like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” and it concerns a daisy chain of tangentially connected characters, suggesting Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” with a somewhat lower sex quotient. But Dobrish is unable to devise a meaningful whole from the collage of scenes and briefly glimpsed characters. The short segments drift by aimlessly, and the play’s structural intricacy doesn’t lend it any particular resonance.
The most satisfied — if surprised — character in the play may well be the first one we meet, who is also one of the most effectively drawn. Gloria (Randy Danson), a middle-aged housewife, arrives for a lunch date on the wrong afternoon. Dialing up her girlfriend, she somewhat implausibly blurts out a breathless tale of her initiation into the strange rites of S&M. (Fortunately, there’s no waiter in sight.)
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It seems her husband has secretly harbored a desire to serve a mistress and, rather than indulge his craving elsewhere, he meekly asks his wife to play the role. There are unexpected advantages, an initially mortified but ultimately delighted Gloria finds, as she tells of administering a beating while her husband scrubs the tub. “He’s scrubbing faster and I’m slapping harder, and I’m thinking to myself: This is for 25 years of your needs coming first.”
But intimations that the play, in keeping with this tale of role reversal and its reverse chronology, will examine a series of topsy-turvy relationships are quickly erased. In the second scene, Gloria’s maid, Consuela (Daniella Alonso), is being sexually exploited by one of her clients, Goldberg (Christopher Innvar), a brutish businessman who uses his wife’s vague illness as an excuse for his absence from work.
Meanwhile at his office, in one of the play’s limper scenes, we see his ball-busting team leader, a woman aptly named Stern (Barbara Garrick), torment his colleagues for Goldberg’s absence. Tempers flare. “We don’t know the first thing about each other in this room,” says Weinstein (David Garrison), a thematic clue dropped somewhat heavily. In most of the play’s scenes, Dobrish is observing the distance between characters searching in some way for connection.
So, for example, the son of one of those businessmen is seen desperately searching for his soulmate at a bar, accosting the comely Selena (Alonso), who has other things on her mind. Jonathan (Josh Radnor) unleashes a somewhat archly clever spiel about his life (“When not actively engaged in self-delusion, I spend my time writing a novel, but then who doesn’t? Or at least who didn’t until writing the great American software code took over for writing the great American novel.”). Selena flees anyway, only to return hopeful but too late.
Other ideas the playwright is struggling to elucidate are spelled out in a scene between lovers Weinstein and Selena; she broke off their relationship days before being accosted by Jonathan in the bar. (Each of the play’s eight scenes is set the day before the previous one.) “I think the future is something we made up to give us hope,” she says. “Or if there is a future it’s so vast, you know? The Grand Canyon blinks and we are dust.”
That rather awkward image is emblematic of writing that is at its best when sticking to more mundane matters. There are some nicely observed exchanges here — the concluding scene, between Gloria’s working-class husband, Frank, and a pal who tactfully ignores his discovery of Frank’s surprising fetish, ends the play on a strong note. But overall the uneven writing — matched by some uneven acting — defeats even the best efforts of experienced director Mark Brokaw, who at least keeps the play’s slightly mournful comic tone gliding along at the same pitch.
The show looks good, too, on an appropriately chilly set by Mark Wendland that uses a minimum of means to evoke a variety of different locations.