End-of-days plays like Adam Rapp’s “Through the Yellow Hour” are great fun for designers. What a kick it must have been for Andromache Chalfant to design the ravaged interior of a bombed-out railroad flat in an East Village devastated by war. Ditto for fellow creatives responsible for the alarming sights and sounds and revolting special effects appropriate to the scribe’s feverish vision of a post-apocalyptic future. Unfortunately, no one seems to have let the suffering performers in on the fun of playing the animalistic survivors who represent the last shreds of humanity in this dystopian world.
The set and its elaborate trappings (including ominous offstage sounds of war supplied by soundman Christian Frederickson) are more eloquent than the inarticulate characters in relating the events that have brought about the end of western civilization.
A foreign army known as Eggheads has attacked the United States and laid it to waste. Men are being castrated, women are being hunted and branded, and children have become a commercial commodity. Infectious diseases have wiped out much of the population — that should ring a bell for anyone who caught Rapp’s futuristic one-act play, “Nursing,” in a previous Rattlestick production — and the lucky few who have escaped infection have acquired the skills (and weapons) to fight off the living dead.
Ellen (Hani Furstenberg, reduced to speaking in monotones) is a shell-shocked survivor whose private agenda for getting through her life alive doesn’t emerge until the end of the play. Until that revelatory moment, she shoots marauders and welcomes only those visitors with something to barter. Her precious gun costs Ellen a case of sardines, a DVD of “Last Tango in Paris,” and “some tasteless sexual acts.”
The only person who gets past Ellen’s formidable defenses is Maude (Danielle Slavick), who has brought her infant girl to swap for three days of safety before lighting out for New England and possibly Canada. “It’s starting to look like Chicago out there,” she warns Ellen, who hasn’t been outside in two months, in case her missing husband should return.
The gruesome fate of Ellen’s husband is eventually revealed in a lengthy speech of lushly detailed sadism that is something of a Rapp specialty. But because the scribe narrates these atrocities without actually staging them, the sequence is surprisingly tasteful, even a bit dull.
On consideration, “dull” is actually the best word for this misbegotten enterprise, which makes the colossal mistake of writing about the aftermath of an event without writing about the event itself. Ellen’s violent survival rituals are nowhere near as interesting as Maude’s brief reports (delivered with a vivid sense of drama by Slavick) on the world outside. A world that we’re actually dying to see, but which perversely remains beyond the boundaries of the play.