By Carol Rocamora . . .
Have you ever found yourself still laughing at a play you saw a day or two ago, or even longer? Not a full-throated laugh, not a chuckle, but a tickle you feel at the back of your throat that comes from watching a play by Ionesco, say, or Albee, or any one of those clever absurdists… A laughter of recognition, of truth…. “Laughing wild amid severest woe,” as Beckett (and the poet Thomas Gray before him) put it.
Such was my experience in having attended Gnit, a play I saw 48 hours ago at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theater in Brooklyn and am still smiling at its odd and wondrous humor about a dead-serious topic – namely, the search for the self. It’s written by a truly original new voice belonging to Will Eno, a playwright with an uncanny sense of what they call the human comedy. In other words, you search for your “self “your whole life through, and what do you find at the end of your journey? A question mark…?
As the title suggests,“Gnit”is a playful misspelling of Peer Gynt (1867), Ibsen’s epic adaptation of a Norwegian fairy-tale. This gargantuan five-act classic, written in verse, features a zillion characters and a self-absorbed protagonist who travels the world over for a long, long lifetime in pursuit of someone rather uninteresting – namely, himself. Along the way, he abandons his mother, abducts someone else’s bride, falls for one of her wedding guests and leaves her, has multiple affairs, fathers another woman’s child, is banished from his homeland, travels the world (Morocco, Egypt), becomes rich, and comes home at the end of his life to find….what?
The wit of Gnit is that it’s an adaptation of an adaptation – so, in a sense, Eno inherits Ibsen’s own sense of irreverence. (“It’s a typo,” Eno’s protagonist explains, referring to the play’s title and thereby setting its tone). That protagonist is called Peter Gnit (Joe Curnutte), whom we first meet in his hut nestled in the Norwegian mountains. (Kimie Nishikawa’s enchanting set underscores the fairy-tale atmosphere.) He’s in conversation with his sick old mother (a hilarious Deborah Hedwall) who greets him with: “I’m glad you’re home, you big old disappointment.” In some of the play’s funniest dialogue, Peter announces his departure for a long journey through life, in pursuit of self.
Thereafter, Gnit pretty much follows Ibsen’s plot, enacted by an ensemble of five actors playing dozens of roles. Therein lies the wonderful sport of this eccentric, engaging, and entertaining adaptation. The bride whom Peter abducts (Christy Escobar) also plays the role of several other women whom Peter romances. The love of his life, Solvay (Jasmine Batchelor) whom he also abandons, keeps turning up as other characters whom he meets along his journey (signifying that she never left his consciousness). My favorite character is listed in the program as “Town” – actually, one actor (David Shih) playing a group of people who are in constant dialogue with each other. Played with hilarious deadpan (in a stand-up style reminiscent of Robin Williams or James Corden), Shih also portrays a “crowd,” and a “mob” later on in the play. Oh, and there’s also a character called “Middle” – a disembodied voice booming from the corners of the darkened stage that confronts Peter midway through his existential journey, saying: “I only exist in correlation to your resistance to me.”
Directed with clarity and restraint by Oliver Butler, Eno’s intentions become apparent – that “comedy is a serious business,” as W. C. Fields once said. Late in Peter’s journey, Peter meets a stranger (Jordan Bellow) who confronts him with questions: “What makes your life important?” “How do you be good in life?” After’s he’s gotten rich, Peter finds a beggar man along the road (Deborah Hedwall, again), and gives him a handful of money. But when the beggar speaks to him of charity and family, Peter suddenly takes the money back. “You’ve got love,” Peter explains. “I’ve always heard that’s enough.”
Peter ultimately returns to his town, where he admits: “I don’t know how to live my life.” When asked why he returned, Peter replies: “My place on earth was here, the whole time…”
According to the program notes, the set of Will Eno’s Gnit sat on the stage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center for 18 months, illuminated only by a ghost light, waiting for the pandemic to subside. What a relief that the lights are up again after that ordeal of darkness, and that the playwright’s sense of humor – and ours – has survived.
Gnit, by Will Eno, directed by Oliver Butler, produced by Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, playing now through November 21