THEATER | “Oh, the Humanity” by the Peanut Butter Factory: “The secret sideways dreams of people like us”

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Walking down the street after seeing Will Eno‘s Oh, the Humanity, and Other Good Intentions at Intermedia Arts, my friend and I were talking about the production and she pinpointed something I hadn’t thought about. “Don’t you think it keeps covering the same terrority?” Yes, actually. But apparently I didn’t mind. It was intriguing territory, covered from different angles. And since the Peanut Butter Factory put the play in the hands of director Natalie Novacek and three mighty fine actors (Matt Sciple, Mo Perry, and Christopher Kehoe), the production never felt like it was repeating itself.

“Don’t speak your mind, and certainly never your heart.”

Oh, the Humanity, and Other Good Intentions is a collection of sharply written scenes that feels like a collection of short stories by an author with a very singular voice. Eno here likes to play around with characters at a moment when they’re most aware of their own mortality. Life may be fragile, but the only choice that’s going to help you get out of bed in the morning is to make the most of whatever time you’ve got. It’s not easy, but the humor and the heart of these characters is in the way they doggedly refuse to give up until something makes some kind of sense.

“You were once suicidal but have since lost interest.”

None of the following sounds funny—but they all end up being very funny all the same. There’s a coach (Sciple) facing the press, and the accumulation of failures in his larger life, on the heels of the most punishing kind of losing season.

“I could not coach a gallon of water out of a paper bag.”

There are two people (Perry, Kehoe) attempting to record a tape for a dating service—dueling intertwined monologues of hope battling against reality and past experience.

“I’m also attracted to men who black out when faced with a difficult question.”

There is a spokeswoman for an airline (Perry) incapable of saying the right words when face to face with a room full of relatives of those lost in a plane crash.

“Gravity, we trust, was a factor.”

There are two photographers (Sciple, Kehoe) struggling to create a replica of a famous war photo from the distant past with people of the present, and finding themselves catching on the tripwire releasing the ghosts of history.

“One way or another, mother, the ghost of your boy is coming home.”

Finally, there is a couple (Perry, Kehoe) trying to get to a christening (or is it a funeral?) and finding that the stage convention of two chairs to represent a car has failed them. The engine won’t turn over, because these are in fact simply two chairs, out in the middle of nowhere. As they debate whether the ceremony they are increasingly late for is celebrating a new life, or instead coming to grips with the loss of his father, a stranger appears. The stranger (Sciple) sheepishly admits that he is “the beauty of things.” He stands there, watching over them, as they wrap their brains around notions of life and death (and the fact that their chairs won’t get them where they need to go).

“…meteor showers, mudslides, adultery…”

Ultimately, yes, the production doesn’t “go anywhere,” per se. Each scene starts fresh, creating and populating its own little world, just slightly askew but still very recognizably ours. The characters all blessedly lose their personal filters and say the most amazing, horrible, beautiful things out loud. This is the sort of play that has me furiously scribbling in the dark because it’s full of so many sparkling turns of phrase. Eno has a poet’s way with words, but it’s still grounded in something that sounds like normal speech. It’s a neat trick, and very satisfying to listen to. A lesser production might have been satisfied with just pretty words, but Novacek, Sciple, Perry and Kehoe aren’t ones to settle. They put real meat and guts in each of these characters and situations, so they feel grounded in real people as well as real language.

“I would give up my body in this world for a single conversation.”

The Peanut Butter Factory’s production of Oh, the Humanity, and Other Good Intentions makes me quite curious what a production of a full-length play from Eno might be like. (You know, a play where something actually “happens.”) Until then, this sampler of solid short works makes for a very tantalizing (and amusing) appetizer. Highly recommended.

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