Exiting the high voltage energy of First Avenue at 10th Street and entering the world of Passing Through feels like a trip to a twilight zone. It’s another dimension, where time seems to begin a deep breathing as playwright Tristan Grigsby entertains some profound observations and imaginings, in a mere sixty minutes.
The play begins with the anguished sounds of a man in distress. He is not happy and when the lights come up. it’s easy to see why. He is in an unpleasant position and condition, apparently against his will; but that could be debated. He has been here before, sent by unknown forces. God, some higher power, or perhaps something else unexplained, call it what you will, is behind Mr. Grigsby’s arrival as a Visitor who enters the lives of several lonely people. Composing himself, this strapping young man of admirable physique, has some serious questions and observations to entertain.
Credit to Mr. Grigsby for presenting a bold and novel work. The dialog is like a prose poem or a meditation. and it engages your mind the way a good philosophical question will do. The action of Passing Through moves with a deliberate and dreamlike pace as we encounter five characters making their way through life, reminding us of how difficult the trip can be. We first meets the Coin Collector, a craggy, Sam Beckett-like Brian Linden, whose focus is a common one. Wanting, getting and keeping money is a greatly riveting activity that generally doesn’t encourage existential reflection. If a man is lonely, his fixation on his precious metal coins keeps him from being bothered by it.
Director, Guenevere Donohue, in addition to giving the work its effective staging, plays Henrietta, an angry and resentful woman who turns to drink to ease her pain. Her world view is fractured by rage and disappointment. She cannot consider other options, won’t consider other options. How many people wrap themselves in the comfort of suffering that is familiar to protect themselves from the unknowns of change? Otto, an amusing toy maker, played by Jaime Gonzolez (who is also at the piano before the show) tries reaching out to Henrietta at the local bar. The Visitor is their bartender.
Bob Laine does a great job as a resigned and ground down Man In a Business Suit. He is slump-shouldered, hang dog and steeped in existential irony. And here I should mention the costuming. No one is noted for this feature but it compliments and enhances the scenes. The Man In the Suit is a study in soft browns. Other characters are equally monochromatic, just the right stroke for each scene. Mary Round, in a soft, generous black dress is the Older Woman. She has made some familiar and common mistakes in her youth and she tells her story in an experienced and wise voice.
The spare set (by Joe Gill)and creative lighting (designed by Alexander Bartenieff), work well for the lyrically spare material. The Visitor moves in and out of the lives of this disparate group, connecting them by their humanity. It might sound like a sad or depressing journey, but surprisingly it is not. The poetry of the dialog, the relaxed pace of the action and the playwright’s compassionate touch, make for an oddly refreshing experience. It is worth a break from the fast pace we are all subject to, to spend an hour being drawn into a quieter world where we can pause and reflect on the true quality of our lives.