Expect challenging original work from Transport Group and you won’t be disappointed. But ask them to show you a good time and you could get a dirty look. And that’s the way it goes with “cul-de-sac,” a new play by actor-playwright John Cariani (“Almost, Maine”) that is technically impressive to watch but uncomfortable to sit through. By imposing an expressionist design on ordinary events and heightening the language of everyday discourse, scribe strips away all subterfuge from the lives of three suburban couples living “on a nice little cul-de-sac in a nice town, in a nice state, in a nice country.”
The stark production design lets us know we’re in spooky territory here. A Wisteria Lane with no play dates. The giant halogen street lamp that looms over Sandra Goldmark’s stripped-down set is cruelly illuminating, a conspirator in the lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy that keeps a chokehold focus on the hapless characters caught in its grip. A bed, a couch, and a table with chairs serve their purposes — but don’t go looking for a refrigerator with cute magnets in this gloomy world.
In a more conventional work, the married couples who are unmasked in the play’s three tightly blocked scenes might seem familiar.
Jill (Robyn Hussa) and Roger Johnson (John Wellmann) are the smart, successful professional couple who seem to have it all. But in the process of climbing the corporate ladder they forgot to acquire a child, and now that Roger has been passed over for a promotion, their lives are looking a bit bleak. Not at all as warm and loving as that of the Joneses’.
James (James Weber) and Christy Smith (Monica Russell) are the nice, inoffensive couple next door, trying bravely to carry on as usual after a sad loss. But compared with that perfect couple the Joneses, their lives seem empty. “We’re slipping,” James says. “We just don’t have what we used to have, and we aren’t what we used to be.”
As for those paragons, the Joneses, well, we know them, too. But they, too, have a secret life that they keep hidden from the neighbors.
Well aware of the perfection of their lives, the Joneses work desperately at the rituals and routines that make them perfect — and it’s driving them nuts. Even a little thing like ordering their usual pizza makes them frantic with anxiety and indecision. Something “good and true” has gone out of their marriage, and they are just going through the motions on automatic pilot.
“They say you get close again to what’s good and true when you get close to dying,” says Irene, in a performance from Nicole Alifante that brings real anguish to the character’s desperation. “So let’s die!”
Somebody in this crowd, if not all of them, is sure to have a meltdown. But while Cariani (who plays Joe Jones) does a solid job of exposing the hollow centers of these marriages, the inevitable meltdowns are too schematic.
The stark expressionist style that is the play’s most unusual feature is also its undoing. Jack Cummings III makes no concessions and takes no prisoners in directing his flawless cast of Transport Group regulars in the play’s heightened language and mannered behavioral style. The verbal acrobatics, in particular, spring directly from the characters’ subconscious thoughts and play as a sustained existential scream of pain.
The abstract style does a remarkable job of exposing the inner lives of characters who make a point of living their perfect lives entirely on the surface. But once the playwright lays bare these hypocrites, he deserts them. And in the process of flailing them alive, he also takes too many strips off the audience, which all too literally, is made to feel their pain.