BWW Review: THE PLOT at Yale Repertory Theatre
There is indeed a lot of plot in the world premiere of "The Plot" at the Yale Repertory Theatre now through December 21, especially for a play by Will Eno. The author of "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," "Wakey, Wakey," and "Title and Deed" confused and confounded audiences with those plays, while impressing them with a precision of language that earned him the title of "a Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation."
Other works are more accessible to audiences such as "The Realistic Jones," "The Open House," and "The Underlying Chris," which nevertheless require patience and understanding in order to fully enter the frequently mysterious and theatrically thrilling worlds that Eno creates.
At first glance, "The Plot" appears to be one of Eno's most conventional projects. It is linear in structure with only a modest jump forward in time toward the end. There is the matter of several pieces of information being kept secret from the audience and the other characters, but nothing atypical of a contemporary work of dramaturgy. In a way, it is refreshing to see Eno working in such a straightforward style as he allows his characters to ruminate on, fight over and even betray each other over a simple piece of property, in this case, a burial plot.
The action takes place in a small-town cemetery, like something out of "Our Town" except that we get to see the gravestones and the grass. The land is in the process of being developed for high-end homes and condos, requiring the exhumation of the bodies and their relocation to any number of sites both in and out of the area. Even the grand gazebo that looks over the last remaining graves to be dug up appears ready to succumb to the backhoe and tractor.
It is here that we first meet "Righty" Morse, a dotty older man verging on the edge of dementia, who has, unbeknownst to his wife, bought a burial plot atop one of the hills in the cemetery because he admires the view and feels it would be the perfect place to spend eternity, even though he and his wife already had two plots at some other cemetery in the area. As could be anticipated by anyone who has encountered this type of plot in any movie, play or novel, Righty's obstinancy is going to cause complications for the local agents of the developer whose remuneration depends on their ability to turn over the entire property lien free by an upcoming deadline.
Not comfortable relying on some expected tropes , however, Eno throws in some twists that turn "The Plot" into a satiric look on how Americans value property as a sign of success, on the ongoing battle between the haves and the have-nots, and the failure to appreciate the sense of history that permeates the landscape around us.
The great character actor Harris Yulin plays Righty with a sense of carefully managed befuddlement and middle class resentment as the pressure builds for him to relinquish his gravesite, upon which he has already placed a rather large stone. He claims that he wants to make sure he gets the best possible deal for his wife as they would also like to move out of their current home to a place that would accommodate their future needs. Mia Katigbak plays Righty's wife Joanne, with a tired sort of strength resulting from her need to care for her deteriorating husband and convince him to do the right thing with his "property."
The elderly couple are poised against the chief agent, Tim, and his assistant/protégé, Donna, who are at least at the play's opening, representatives of "the deal," the sign that they can hold their heads high among their colleagues as the successful, ingenious manipulators they picture themselves to be. Stephen Barker Turner's Tim is both ambitious and risible, as he plows steadily forward without any concern for the people he may hurt along the way and unaware of what their actual feelings may be. Jennifer Mudge's Donna is a young, striving suburbanite, typical of the new generation of working women, who nonetheless is in denial regarding the promises of her older co-worker resulting in her becoming the type of obedient associate any executive would desire.
Jimonn Cole does an excellent turn as Grey, a local artist and preservation activist who has been assigned to watch over the clearing of the cemetery and who befriends both the older couple and Donna while challenging their expectations and as necessary their actions. He becomes particularly protective of Joanne over the deal being offered to the couple by the developers as well as her husband's on-gain, off-again agreement to the terms.
This being Eno, however, the play is not strictly realistic. In addition to having its own share of quirky laughs, its characters do sometimes behave in exaggerated silliness, whether stretching out over a cemetery plot to see if one would fit or throwing a childish temper tantrum when not granted one's way. And there is considerable suspense over the back and forth nature of the negotiations, particularly as the audience becomes aware of the machinations being deployed-justly or unjustly by the various parties. And no doubt you'll be left questioning by the shocking appearance of an unexplained intruder in a later scene, who many even not be real, but creates an image indicative of the cemetery's long history.
At the heart of Eno's work stands an appreciation for the natural environment of cemetery, representing one of the last vestiges of nature to be found in many an urban environment. Through Eno's language, as expressed in particular by Righty and Grey, and enhanced by the elaborate but precarious landscape created by scenic designer Sarah Karl, the detailed sound design by Emily Duncan Wilson (who also contributed the original music) and a pitch perfect lighting design by Evan C. Anderson, a feeling for the value of the property is created, whether on a bright sunny morning or in the midst of a windy, thunder clapping middle of the night downpour.
Director Oliver Butler, a frequent Eno collaborator, exhibits a great deal of compassion for the characters and allows the relationships to grow organically, including the audience's understanding and concern for the characters. He maintains audience interest, despite some lengthy scene changes that, once you get used to them, provide a natural pause to allow for the full absorption of the developments of the just-completed scene.
"The Plot" can be seen at Yale Rep through December 21. For information and tickets, contact the Yale Repertory Theatre Box Office at 860.432.1234 or by visiting yalerep.org.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus