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Off Broadway Review: ‘The Underlying Chris’

The subject of Will Eno’s new play is, he tells us, “Life on Earth.”

Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell, Michael Countryman, Nicholas Hutchinson, Lenne Klingaman, Lizbeth Mackay, Howard Overshown, Isabella Russo, Nidra Sous la Terre, Charles Turner, and Luis Vega.

1 hour 20 minutes

Will Eno, the playwright behind “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and “The Realistic Joneses,” goes full ­­existential in his ambitious new play, “The Underlying Chris,” by following an Everyperson character named Chris/Christine/Christopher, et al, from cradle to grave. Disconcertingly at first, this protean person is alternately played by both male and female performers. But before long, the flexible nature of this ambiguously named character feels fluid and graceful, as (s)he floats effortlessly through time and space.

Or, as the narrator poetically puts it, “This is the journey of a certain Chris, through the world, through time and places and doors.” Or, if you want more, it’s also about “identity, change, renewal,” and so forth.

When Chris is first met, he is an infant called Kit, tucked into a bassinet and doted upon by his adoring Mother (Hannah Cabell, sturdy in this and many other roles). As young as he is, the child acquires a bad back (from Daddy’s overly rough play) that will plague him for the rest of his life.

The first of scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s many basic sets rolls off and is immediately replaced by another basic set, that of a modest living room, where a young Polish nanny (Lenne Klingaman) is picking up after her charge. Ten-year-old Chris is still a boy, but now without his father, who seems to have died.

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“Is it fun, being you?” the nanny asks the child, rather unkindly reminding him that he is now fatherless. But Chris’ personality is already formed. By now, he knows that he can be himself or anyone else he wants to be, because his mother told him so.

When the next scene trundles on (those little rolling platforms will eventually become absolutely maddening, but for now, they’re doing the job), Chris has morphed into Christine, a teenaged girl played by Isabella Russo. Christine is in the hospital with a concussion she suffered from a diving accident. By now, we’re beginning to appreciate not only Chris’ fragility, but also the fragility of the human body; indeed, of the whole human race.

This far along, director Kenny Leon (a Tony winner for “A Raisin in the Sun”) seems more in command of the playwright’s quicksilver style, with its stylized language and surreal sense of humor — like Beckett, one might say, or Edward Albee. “I look at almost anything humans do and l just think: Helmets,” says a trauma doctor. “Everyone should be wearing helmets for this.” The trauma doctor says more things, not all of them interesting or pertinent, but always funny, in Eno’s quirky style.

By the time Chris (now Kris) is twenty-one, she is a “tennis champion, model student, survivor.” And despite having lost her mother, her father, her uncle, and her several guardians, she’s a winner, this epitome of the human race. “I wish you all could see her,” enthuses a talk show host. “Not the person or even the persona, but the essence.”

And that’s pretty much the essence of “The Underlying Chris,” an abstract of the human race in all its genius and splendor — and all its stupidities and frailties. Eno is especially adept at seizing on the non-sequiturs that make human speech (and thought) so innocently hilarious. When Chris achieves a certain celebrity just for being herself, she is interviewed by a talk show host who stops to muse out loud: “We all know how aromatic candles are made. But, have you ever wondered why?”

By the time Chris, Christine, Christoph, Kris, Krista, Topher, et al, come to the end of his/her life, Eno has still not exhausted all his metaphysical musings on the existential mystery of humankind. Even as the mourners gather around our hero’s grave, they have to smile at one last absurd indignity inflicted on this symbol of our all-too-human race: for want of an editor, the inscription on his / her gravestone reads: “Chirs.”

If you find this hilariously funny, then Will Eno and his metaphysical sideshow is for you.

Off Broadway Review: 'The Underlying Chris'

Second Stage / Tony Kiser Theater; $129 top. Opened Nov. 21, 2019. Reviewed Nov. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Production: A Second Stage presentation of a play in one act, co-commissioned by Center Theater Group and Second Stage Theater, by Will Eno.

Creative: Directed by Kenny Leon. Sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Samantha Watson.

Cast: Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell, Michael Countryman, Nicholas Hutchinson, Lenne Klingaman, Lizbeth Mackay, Howard Overshown, Isabella Russo, Nidra Sous la Terre, Charles Turner, and Luis Vega.

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