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The Attic

How unexpected for a show about something so sad to evoke so much joy. But that's one of many conundrums that make "The Attic" captivating. A Japanese play receiving its American preem, it creates a fantasy universe to explore the real social phenomenon of hikikomori, in which young people lock themselves in their rooms for years at a time.

How unexpected for a show about something so sad to evoke so much joy. But that’s one of many conundrums that make “The Attic” captivating. A Japanese play receiving its American preem, it creates a fantasy universe to explore the real social phenomenon of hikikomori, in which young people lock themselves in their rooms for years at a time. Playwright Yoji Sakate weaves overlapping tales of shut-ins, and simply hearing the details of his stories could make them sound impossibly bleak. But Sakate and the creative team have such sensitive, exciting imaginations that their vision of isolation is a thrill to experience.

The production is particularly defined by its set, designed by Takeshi Kata. Surrounded by blackness and hovering several feet off the floor, it’s nothing but a rectangular box with a slanted roof. Too small to let a person stand upright, the structure nevertheless holds every scene, with actors bent in precarious shapes.

Yet for all its constriction, the set also proves remarkably diverse. Lights flicker from the darkest corners, and thesps — or at least parts of them — keep popping in through hidden doors. The puzzle-box architecture tells us confinement can be more expansive than we think.

So does the script. Rather than becoming a moral treatise on why Japanese kids isolate themselves, it ponders the varieties of solitude. In this world — which leaps in time from the approximate present all the way to the next century — some people prefer the Internet to human contact; others hide away because they are terrified of being teased. And some people climb into a hutch because they’re on a mountaintop and it’s the only protection they can find from a raging blizzard.

The conceit of the scenes, which range from tragic to surreally funny, is that they all take place in a product called The Attic — a do-it-yourself hermitage sold online by a mysterious company. There’s never a pandering expository scene, but we learn from context clues that Attics have become a global fad. People put them in their living rooms and dorms. Knock-off brands flood the market. And in the future, collectors hunt for original models.

The mark of an authentic Attic is one of the show’s key metaphors: True Attics have a stick-figure drawing of a hunter on one wall. That’s the drawing a man called Older Brother (Trey Lyford) sees when he visits the box where his younger brother killed himself. It’s what a young woman (Fiona Gallagher) notices when she refuses to leave her Attic, even after her husband has it thrown out of the house.

Eventually we meet the hunter, also known as Man With a Cap (Brandon Miller). In the play’s dream logic, he’s a type of spirit who can be summoned to help people who are trapped, literally or figuratively. The trouble is, most characters don’t know what kind of help they need. Miller, his pale face lit eerily from underneath, is mournful as he interacts with recluses losing touch with themselves.

The paradox here is that isolation actually limits self-knowledge. The text alludes to this point with images instead of direct statements, and helmer Ari Edelson doesn’t simplify its observations. The production moves with a sustained, gentle rhythm, refusing to make some moments seem more important than others.

Auds are left to make their own conclusions about a show that balances laughter and sorrow, declines to tell stories in a linear way, and lets impossible events seem natural.

By the conclusion, when a recurring character finally meets Man With a Cap and the back of the stage bursts into unexpected life, the tortuous plot makes emotional sense. Depictions of seclusion have created a type of journey, ending with an image that says it’s not too late for distant objects to be connected.

Maybe, then, those of us who feel alone just need to adopt this play’s slanted, moving perspective.

The Attic

59E59; 98 seats; $35 top

  • Production: A Play Company presentation of a play in one act by Yoji Sakate, translated by Leon Ingulsrud and Keiko Tsuneda. Directed by Ari Edelson.
  • Crew: Sets, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Junghyun Georgia Lee; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Bart Fasbender; production stage manager, Scott Pomerico. Opened March 4, 2007. Reviewed March 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Older Brother - Trey Lyford Man With a Cap - Brandon Miller <b>With:</b> Caesar Samayoa, David Wilson Barnes, Fiona Gallagher, Emily Donahoe, Michi Barall, Ed Vassallo.