There isn’t another play quite like “Pomona.” Alistair McDowall is one of a batch of young British writers chucking dramatic form up against the wall. His debut, “Brilliant Adventures,” put a functioning time machine into a gritty housing-project drama. “Pomona” is even more ambitious: a science fiction thriller that bleeds into reality and back again. Director Ned Bennett turns in a gripping graphic novel staging, but beneath the gloss, the play’s a sharp critique of the way we turn horrible realities into stories, and then turn a blind eye.
Pomona is an urban wasteland in Manchester, once a set of Victorian docks, now “a hole in the middle of the city.” It’s largely left unexplored and McDowall uses it as a metaphor for all the things in the world that we choose not to see: all the inequities of globalization, and all the sweatshops and hardships that prop up our lives. His play starts, tantalizingly, with a rambling “Raiders of the Lost Ark” synopsis as told by a man gorging himself on Chicken McNuggets. We can know the contents of both box and nuggets, he explains, but we have to live with the consequences: “Selective education is the most important ethos of our times.”
Charlie (Sam Swann) works as a security guard at Pomona, a job that requires him to stand on the spot and ask no questions as unmarked trucks come and go. Off-duty, he’s a Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast who’s invented a game of his own, Cthulhu Awakens — an H.P. Lovecraft-style sci-fi roleplay game that imagines all sorts of horrors happening beneath a hatch on Pomona.
Playing the game with his meek new friend Keaton (Sarah Middleton), Charlie unfolds a story of two sisters, one searching for the other. Debt-ridden, she took a job in a brothel, alongside the washed-out Fay (Rebecca Humphries), only to disappear, or to be disappeared, apparently into Pomona.
McDowall’s structure is virtuosic, a kind of Mobius strip or loop-the-loop. It defies linear logic to double back on itself, swallows its own tail. As such, Keaton comes face to face with her in-game avatar, while Charlie finds himself ordered to abduct one of his characters. Reality segues into fiction like an Escheresque staircase.
That’s a pinpoint metaphor for our complicity: Our comfortable consumption leads, ultimately, to unpalatable places. The question is whether we follow that trail back, and whether we open the ark or the McNugget. “Pomona” is, in part, a stinging attack on art and audiences. Charlie’s RPG is like any other film, book or play and, just as its fictions have their correspondents, so too do ours. Every film about child soldiers, every show about sex trafficking, and what do we do? We make sympathetic noises and cry synthetic tears, then go home and carry on regardless, our eyes open but our heads in the sand. McDowall slams the point home: “Everything bad is real.”
That’s what makes the comic book fantasia such a potent choice of form. Up the surrealism, swirl in talking seagulls and octopoid gods, and you seem to distance this fictional world from our own. Only McDowall never lets us escape into pure escapism, despite the way his story grips. He spins this fantasy and stresses, constantly, that it is not remotely as fantastical as we might like. You’re pulled both ways at once: disarmed and discomfited.
True, the narrative loop-the-loop isn’t perfectly clear, but the disorientation only ups the ante. McDowall toys with the timeline, showing us the fiction before the RPG framework, so that you’re never sure what, if anything, is real. He litters extraordinary scenes with banal dialogue and lets far-flung fantasies emerge from workplace conversations. His writing can be very funny, then very tender. You feel the influence of playwright Philip Ridley (“Mercury Fur,” “Pitchfork Disney”) keenly, not least in his eye for images.
Bennett’s production taps into all this, even if it can’t solve the problems born of the play’s ambition. He speeds into its handbrake turns (though not as sharply as it did in its premier last year at the tiny Orange Tree Theater), plunging us into pitch black and strobe-lit slow-mo fights. Swann — one of the loveliest young actors around — is delightful as Charlie, all stuttering uncertainty and over-excitable flights of fancy, while Humphries finds real warmth in the wrung-out Fay. She looks like she’s lived several lives already, all of them exhausting. This is singular stuff: fresh, vivid and engrossing, and as delirious as it is dead serious.