BWW Review: Comedy Takes a Bittersweet Turn in Catastrophic's TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY
In August of 2017, I became a news junkie again, in a way that I haven't been since those CNN obsessed days following 9/11. From the foreboding forecasts leading up to Hurricane Harvey through the deluge, the floods and the aftermath, we all watched with almost rabid attention. Seeing steadfast Lester Holt standing in the parking lot of my workplace, water splashing over his shoes was such a surreal experience - but one Houston shared, we watched together for hours that became days. The newscasters and field reporters became our resources, our friends, our comforters, even quite literally our rescuers. When did they cross the line from observers to participants?
That is the question answered by critical darling Will Eno's TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY, running through October 20 at Catastrophic. Eno's quirky absurdist writing is particularly suited to intimate spaces and Match is no exception. We are close enough to the actors to see them sweat, quite literally.
The premise: the world is ending (or is it?) on this particularly average night, a night in which darkness falls, never to end. The players are a team of news reporters, led by their avuncular Walter Cronkite-trained desk anchor, Frank (smoothly played by Catastrophic stalwart Greg Dean). Even Frank's name is synonymous with honesty, integrity, the gentle voice of reason that calmly delivers the very worst news right into your living room. Frank's fellow news team is Constance at the Home (Elizabeth Marshall Black), a woman whose ticks and neuroses are thinly veiled by her brittle TV persona; John in the Field ( Jovan Jackson) a dog lover who is the most personable of the reporters and Michael, the Legal Advisor (Bryan Kaplun) whose desperate attempts to stay as efficient as possible provide some of the show's biggest laughs and most poignant moments. The only other character is Jayden Key's Witness, a young man inexplicable appearances turns into the performance of the night.
The black box space at Match lent itself neatly to Ryan McGettigan's set design, detailed little islands of reality floating separately in the night. McGettigan's typical attention to minutiae such as a garden hose in front of the suburban 'home' were nice anchors in the surrounding void.
I did my research before attending Catastrophic's production, and came in expecting a comedy. The audience laughed occasionally, as did I, but not uproariously. The jokes wore a little thin, like an SNL sketch that didn't quite gel or went on for too long. This piece initially appeared just before 9/11 changed our news-viewing habits forever. When discussions of 'fake news' pervades every moment of our lives, the absurdity of Eno's work is not quite so absurd. Tamarie Cooper's adept direction also did not punch the laugh lines but glanced lightly over them and went straight for the pathos.
As all sociopolitical norms deteriorate, we watch Constance, John and Michael fracture along with it, devolving into panic, hysteria and nonsense. Black's Constance has cracks that are visible from the first minute, so when she breaks we have already seen the seams. Jovan Jackson takes an extreme journey from affable reporter covering 'dogs doing regular dog things' to a fetal position in the woods. Jackson is immensely likable, and his decline is anguishing. Kaplun's Michael is a trooper to the end, when his numbers and statistics can no longer hide him from the truth at the end of the world. Greg Dean turns in a stellar performance, clutching at any semblance of normalcy, any straw to cling to in the darkness. His disintegration is the hardest to watch; we want him to stay strong, to keep going, to hold us together. Dean is steady, soothing and slick but never unctuous.
It wasn't the comedy of broadcasters who have absolutely no information to share but share it anyway that stayed with me, nor was it watching each of these characters disintegrate into their lowest common denominators as they desperately cling to order. It was instead in their attempts, on the last night of the world, to stay connected. They hold on to their microphones (quite literally) and to each other and their unseen audiences to their last coherent moment, 'speaking to keep loneliness at bay'.
As darkness and silence fall, the evening ultimately belongs to Jayden Key. The Witness finds himself in the field beside the now unresponsive John, with the reporter's microphone. In sharp contrast to the seasoned reporters' regression from empty platitudes to nonsensical rambling, the Witness tells us a bedtime story in simple eloquence. Key is luminous. Jayden Key elevates the simplicity of Eno's language in this poignant moment with gentle reverence. His bittersweet closing speech is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's short stories about the end of the world - "There Will Come Soft Rains" and most particularly "The Last Night of the World"; stories where people do 'people things' and go gently into the night. We should all wish for such a witness to talk us to the end of the world.
TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY. Through October 20, 2019. The Catastropic Theatre, 3400 Main Street. For information, please call 713-522-2723 or visit catastrophictheatre.com.