Since at least 1970, when Stephen Sondheim had one his characters sing about Another Hundred People getting off of the train, the paradoxical desolation of the crowded urban landscape has been repeatedly contemplated in contemporary American drama. What sets The Human Variations apart is that it unfolds in an actual Manhattan art gallery rather some imagined New York City landmark: the dynamic provoked by this site-specific production is immediate and immersive.
Written by David Alex Andrejko in collaboration with the company, and directed skillfully by Ellen Orenstein, The Human Variations offers fly-on-the-wall glimpses at a group of contemporary New Yorkers—coping with, or hiding from, or denying the existence of their aloneness. The show is presented in a gallery that currently houses a photography exhibit by Abby Verbosky on the theme of "being alone in public spaces," which is precisely what this play is about. Even in conversation with one another, the disconnectedness of the characters is always palpable. Witnessing it in such organic surroundings, absent a fourth wall and other usual trappings of the stage, serves to amplify the melancholy.
The work is further distinguished by its somewhat unusual shape, which echoes that of a musical composition (the play is billed as a "dramatic symphony," an apt metaphor). There are four movements, starting with "Allegro," in which the characters make their entrances to the gallery and initial attempts at connection unfold. "Largo" sees the pace slow, appropriately, and the proceedings become more introspective; this section contains several monologues in which the characters explain themselves to...themselves (we get to eavesdrop). "Scherzo" brings the work to a manic climax, and then the evening concludes with "Rondo," which is mostly silent, offering us as observers time and space to reflect on what we've seen, even as the characters seem lost in a kind of reflection themselves. It's a poignant finish to a touching play.
Orenstein and choreographer Anne DeMers use physical theater techniques throughout the piece, highlighting the way that posing has become in and of itself a form of self-expression, and letting movement convey mood, character, and possibility. The eight actors—Kyla Deichl, Molly Groome, Nick Hepsoe, Cole Johnston, Sarah King, Jillian Mason, Melissa McNerney, and Zac Walker—execute the action seamlessly and skillfully, and though we never get very far beneath any particular individual's skin in this piece, the feelings presented are raw and resonant.