By Brian Scott Lipton
The fluidity of identity – the reality that both how we define ourselves and how others define us can change multiple times in our journey from cradle to tomb – is a subject that almost seems tailor-made for Will Eno, one of our most philosophically-minded playwrights. So it’s slightly surprising to discover how prosaic his new play on the subject, The Underlying Chris, now at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, turns out to be.
Or perhaps Eno knows this truth as well, which is why the work relies all-too-heavily on a central gimmick. (If you want to be surprised, please stop reading).
In each of the approximately one dozen vignettes that comprise the work, “Chris” not only ages, but changes genders, race, ethnicities, and even monikers (all variations on Chris) in each scene, seemingly to underscore Eno’s thesis on the universality of this subject. While initially clever, the gimmick ultimately wears out its welcome before the 90 minutes are over – although the play manages to remain reasonably involving up until its all-too-obvious conclusion.
Even with these metamorphoses, Eno somehow makes sure the character’s basic through-line remains reasonably constant: surviving an incredibly screwed-up childhood, abandoning a full-fledged medical career for stints as veterinarian’s assistant and a therapist, becoming an initially doting then cheating spouse and loving father, and finally entering into old age with a strong spirit but weak body.
It’s not a particularly remarkable story, and one wonders if it might resonate just a little more strongly if one truly great actor had somehow assayed the entire part. Nonetheless, one cannot fault the remarkable cast assembled by director Kenny Leon, many of whom play some version of “Chris” and all of whom effortlessly switch in and out of multiple roles.
Indeed, any show that allows to us appreciate the work of 11 great actors should not be missed, never mind dismissed. Kudos to the versatile Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell, Michael Countryman, Lizbeth Mackay, Howard Overshown, Nidra Sous La Terre, Charles Turner, and the lesser known if equally valuable Isabella Russo, Lenne Klingman, Nicholas Hutchinson and Luis Vega.
As is often the case at Second Stage, the show’s production values are the true star. Staged on a non-raised platform, the show has a new, often detailed set (by the very busy Arnulfo Maldonado) for each scene – sliding in and out of the wings, hiding one behind the other, and changing with almost alarming alacrity –while Dede Ayite’s costumes are consistently spot-on, letting us know everything we need about each character (“Chris” or otherwise).
In a rather too-cutesy prologue, Eno has one of the actors speak directly to us, saying “Maybe this play is going to be a little place on your map, someday. Imagine– years from right now, you look back. And then one time I saw a play that had a name in the title – Stacy maybe or Lee – and, I’ll never forget, I felt such-and-such. I was there, I was definitely me but younger, and I felt such-and-such. We would be honored to be even partly remembered like that.”
Maybe you will. But I suspect I’ll likely forget most of the play – if not the extraordinary effort by its players – by the end of 2019.
Photos: Joan Marcus
The Underlying Chris continues at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd Street) through December 15. Visit www.2st.com for tickets and information.