Oh the Humanity and other exclamations
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 30, 2007
The frailty of human catharsis is the subject of Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations, Will Eno's heartfelt but slight new program of short plays. The emotions on display are of the quiet, simple kind that accompany a monumental realization. Indeed, there are quiet moments aplenty in Oh, the Humanity as the characters experience one epiphany or another. Eno seems genuinely sincere in examining how each of them handles such big feelings, but he also flaunts an almost willful disregard for story and conflict. Without much of either, there is ultimately very little ground that Oh, the Humanity is able to cover.
The evening is made up of five short pieces, the best of which comes first. Titled "Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured," it presents a somber sports coach at a post-season press conference talking at first about his team's challenging year, and then giving way to more contemplative matters. It seems that his wife or girlfriend left him at some point during the season and he hasn't been coping very well. As played by Brian Hutchison (who is startlingly good throughout), the audience can sense and feel the "punishing, crushing, nauseating sorrow" the coach feels from the moment he sits down. His ruminations on mortality and heartbreak are potent and moving. This is the most successful of the evening's offerings because the setting and context are clear: the audience knows who and where this person is, both of which add considerably to the amusing tension caused by his increasingly inappropriate comments.
The rest of the plays fall short in some crucial way. "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain" presents two lonelyhearts carrying on a curiously nebulous conversation. (He: "I don't have a favorite food, but I like cholesterol." She: "I'm attracted to men who black out when asked a difficult question.") Are they communicating online or by phone? Are they in the same room? Do they even know each other? With Hutchison and co-star Marisa Tomei (also doing strong work throughout) sitting on opposite ends of the stage facing the audience, their relationship is never made clear. In "Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently," an airline representative publicly addresses a recent plane crash, nervously causing her to make thoughtless gaffes like "Gravity, we trust, was a factor." But is she talking to the press or the victims's families? Again, the situation is never made quite clear. The same problem plagues the evening's other two plays, "The Bully Composition," about a photographer and his assistant trying to recreate a group photo from the Spanish-American War, and "Oh, the Humanity," which features a couple trying to remember if they're driving to a christening or a funeral.
Eno's fascination with the quietly harrowing epiphanies humanity experiences, and the ways they choose to express them, results in some sound-bite friendly quotes throughout. Phrases like "A human face is a cry for help," or one character describing his year as one of "cigarette butts and minor car crashes," carry descriptive kernels of truth that many viewers will recognize and flesh out on their own. But the characters all face internal conflicts—self-doubt, loneliness, fear—which play better in the contemplative arena of literature. Lacking external obstacles to overcome, the pieces in Oh, the Humanity amount to little more than gentle self-analyses for their characters.
This is too bad because the deep vein of sorrow that runs through Eno's writing hints at deeper, more satisfying possibilities. What exactly he's getting at here is uncertain. And top notch efforts by Hutchison, Tomei, and Drew Hildebrand (in a completely thankless cameo in the final play) go mostly for naught. Jim Simpson directs with elegant economy and keen understanding of Eno's offbeat humor, but he is unable to do much else.