Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations begins with a disorienting bang. A disheveled and nervous-looking Coach (Philip Lehl) walks out onto the blandly neutral set — a table and microphone, set up for a press conference — then turns to the audience and says, "Let's get started." At first, I thought Lehl was a wound-up, unhappy-looking, real-life theater manager, about to thank the show's sponsors. But by the time he spoke into the microphone, asking the press for questions, I realized it was Lehl's character, The Coach.
The short monologue that Lehl proceeded to humorously, but also movingly, act out is playwright Will Eno's opening move in a series of five linked sketches.
First, we have The Coach at a press conference, conducting a postmortem on what has been yet another losing season. He's followed by "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rain," in which the Lady (Mikelle Johnson) and the Gentlemen (Erik Hellman) film videos about themselves for a dating service.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
Oh, the Humanity and other exclamationsThrough February 20. $21 to $43.
Johnson is back, solo, in "Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently," when, as spokesperson for Country Air airlines, she has the apparently overwhelming task of addressing the public after one of Country Air's planes has gone down with no survivors. Hellman and Lehl work together in "The Bully Composition" as two photographers preparing a group (the audience) for a group photo.
The play ends with all three actors onstage in "Oh, The Humanity," in which Woman (Johnson) and Man (Hellman) get in their car to go to a milestone event, but they can't remember if it's supposed to be a funeral or a baptism. When their car won't start, Lehl pops in on them as, of all things, The Beauty of Things. He's supposed to console them with his mere presence as they're trapped between birth and death in a car that, upon close inspection, turns out to be nothing more than a couple of folding chairs.
In a post-performance Q&A, Eno said he'd written the mini-plays separately, without any thought of putting them together. So it's surprising that they hang so well together. Except for the last play, they all involve unnamed characters who have been called on to speak to strangers. And the protagonists all say more than the stranger wants to hear. About his characters, Eno said, "If you let a person talk long enough, they'll eventually tell you who they are."
That certainly feels true of The Coach, who is Eno's and Lehl's strongest creation. The season he's attempting to sum up for the reporters was not a success. "It was a hard year," The Coach says, gathering himself. Lehl makes his next line, "Tough schedule," feel like highly compressed poetry. The "punishing, crushing, nauseating sorrow" that The Coach feels seems to have a deeper source than just the numbers on a scoreboard. "Did any one of us have what he would call a winning season?" he asks. "And what would that even look like?" On a sunnier note, he ventures, "I'm thrilled about the upcoming year and all the life it will naturally contain."
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As played by Lehl, all of The Coach's sentences catch in his throat, and there's a strong suggestion that life itself is the "losing season." Eno makes this fatalistic point more explicitly in later vignettes, such as "Enter the Spokeswoman," that deal directly with mortality. But none of the other bits work quite as well. Johnson has awkwardly funny moments in her monologue on the airplane crash: "Gravity, we trust, was a factor." But ultimately it doesn't hit home like the Coach's, because the Spokeswoman is speaking about death and mortality in general, while the Coach's suffering is specifically his own, yet still recognizable to us.
The second play, "Ladies and Gentleman, the Rain," is the second strongest of the pieces, largely because of the insightful stagecraft of director Alex Harvey. Here two young singles are making videos for an eHarmony-style dating service. What they say is largely banal — and not in a good way — but the sight of their oversize faces projected onto the wall is a painful revelation. They try to look "normal" for the camera while uttering lines like, "I'm good at grocery shopping. I shine my own shoes. I don't try to say anything funny when someone close has died." But the giant projections of their faces reveal their deep, probably existential discomforts. With his bland good looks and deeply felt befuddlement, Hellman is quite touching here.
The short evening of theater peters out at the end with the stranded couple visited by The Beauty of Things. Perhaps Eno means to show that he's an optimist at heart, despite being described by The New York Times as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." But this casually grand gesture — naming a very ordinary person The Beauty of Things — falls flat, and the idea that the characters don't know if they're going to a funeral or a christening seems pat.
Eno says he thinks of the reality of his characters as "joyfully inexpressible." His play mostly lives up to this happy formulation.