THEATER | Workhaus Collective’s “Little Eyes” at the Guthrie Theater: See ennui, hear ennui, speak ennui

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For a reality check, I just called my aunt Judy, an actual resident of suburbia. I asked her to imagine that “one day your doorbell rings, and it’s a weirdly jolly man in a suit, with a camera around his neck and a briefcase in his hand. He tells you he’s on assignment from the mayor of Lino Lakes, and he wants to photograph the outside and inside of your house for an exhibit at the library. He’d also like you to put on an apron and pose for a photo, and he’d also like to photograph your children.”

“No way.”

little eyes, presented through february 20 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

“You wouldn’t let him in?”

“Absolutely not. Not without checking it out, and probably not even then.”

“That situation happens in a play I just saw.”

“Did they let him in?”

“Yes. In fact, one woman tries to seduce him, and another invites him to live as a boarder on the family couch.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

Last winter, Urban Samurai Productions presented Aaron Christopher’s disappointing Drama a Comedy. Cory Hinkle’s new play Little Eyes, now being presented by Workhaus Collective in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, shares a similar setting (suburban America, soon after 9/11) and some of the same themes (implacable fear and confusion), and fails for the same fundamental reason. Instead of presenting real characters with comprehensible motivations, both plays give us outrageous archetypes who bounce around randomly, like ping-pong balls in a popcorn maker.

The plot concerns two families who live across the street from each other in, according to the program, “a suburb in Middle America.” Do they spy on each other through the blinds? Does one of them have a disaffected preteen? Was there an adulterous hook-up during the last block party? Is Joe Dowling Irish?

Steph (Maggie Chestovich, in anachronistic jeggings) and Mark (Adam Whisner) are in a sexless marriage. Steph is upset because one or both of the two seem to be infertile, but Mark doesn’t understand why she won’t give his possibly low-count sperm much of a chance to nest in her possibly low-quality eggs, and we don’t understand why either. Meanwhile, Judy (Sarah Agnew) is raising young Martin (Braxton Baker) alone, because her unseen husband is…well, unseen. Enter Gary (Luverne Seifert), an übercreepy photographer who claims that the mayor has assigned him to document local households for an upcoming exhibit at the library.

These characters, like the characters in Drama a Comedy, are so disconnected from reality—not just Aunt Judy’s reality, but any reality—that the plot is completely uninvolving. Judy vacillates unpredictably between distrusting Gary and pleading for him to stay, despite the fact that he’s creeping into her son’s bedroom and taking pictures in the middle of the night. Mark is devastated by the fact that his marriage is in jeopardy, but he won’t confess to the liaison that his wife obviously knows he had. Martin is appropriately horrified at Gary’s attempts to usurp his father’s place, until out of nowhere he has a complete change of heart and suddenly adores Gary.

The cast is top-notch—these are some of the very best actors in the Twin Cities—and they occasionally provide glimpses of what might have been if Hinkle and director Jeremy Wilhelm had made a decision about what exactly they wanted to do with this play. Seifert and Chestovich have a funny flirtation that could have been the template for a comedy of caricatures; on the other end of the emotional spectrum, Whisner works up real emotion as he destroys his bedroom in a futile rage. But what, exactly, is this play? Is it a hyper-stylized allegory, or is it a realistic drama? Hinkle and Wilhelm try to have both simultaneously, and it’s just a mess.

In a typical scene, Judy tells Gary and Steph, who share a love for Fair Trade coffee, that she can’t taste the difference between Fair Trade coffee and Folger’s. Gary and Steph laugh—but they don’t just laugh, they cackle manically. Seifert and Chestovich just keep laughing and laughing and laughing, louder and louder and louder, while Agnew stands in the middle looking confused and frightened, wondering what the hell’s going on. I was wondering the same thing myself.