Symbols — as anyone from a James Joyce scholar to a text-messaging teen can tell you — can be an efficient and aesthetically pleasing aid to communication. Used indiscriminately, however, symbolism can be a pointless exercise in self-indulgent playwriting. That pretty much sums up “The Private Lives of Eskimos,” a new play by Ken Urban that employs a chorus of Eskimos, speed-talking in spam email jargon, to dramatize the mental breakdown of a young man who has lost his sister in a terrorist bombing.
Without the Eskimos — and would that we could delete them — Urban (“I [Heart] Kant”) gives a fairly straightforward account of how Marvin (Michael Tisdale), an inoffensive cog in the giant social mechanism of Manhattan, goes around the bend after his sister is killed in a terrorist bombing on her way to visit him.
Assuming the fetal position, Marvin removes himself from life and work and begins self-destructive behavior like getting hooked on antidepressants and cutting himself with sharp objects.
After being coaxed back to some semblance of life by his live-in girlfriend Christine (Melissa Miller), Marvin finally crawls back to work. But he’s still pretty shaky on his pins, and when he tries to talk about his ordeal with his buddy Tom (Andrew Breving), Tom says “office amigos” can laugh themselves silly over last night’s TV shows, but they cannot share heavy emotions like grief and despair.
Miller’s sympathetic Christine is a gentle bully and Breving’s jovial Tom a distracting doofus, and, between the two of them, they might eventually jolly the suffering hero out of his depression. But as Tisdale’s meticulously focused performance makes clear, Marvin is too far gone for a leisurely recovery. And when someone steals his cell phone — precious because it contains his sister’s voice sending her love from the bombed train — he loses it altogether.
Ultimately, Marvin is saved by a life-affirming relationship he carries on with a mysterious woman (Carol Monda) — who has acquired his stolen cell phone and who uses a combination of wit, wiles and phone sex to help him.
But while helmer Dylan McCullough properly directs his cast to straddle the line between tragedy and farce, the postmodernist design of the production too literally translates Marvin’s chaotic emotions and hallucinatory state of mind into hard-edged geometric patterns painted on the back walls.
And whenever a character does manage to say something coherent, those darned Eskimos block it out entirely with Spam-speak.