Human despair being what it is—a seemingly intractable element of the human condition—and human beings being what they are—blobs of flesh and brains that find it difficult if not impossible to be “happy”—there is plenty of tragedy for artists to mine, especially if the final objective is humor.
Pulitzer-nominated playwright Will Eno’s Oh the Humanity and other good intentions , a series of five playlets being performed by a dream team of local comedy (Mo Perry, Matt Sciple, and Christopher Kehoe), bores deep into the abyss of loneliness and confusion that pervades so much of modern life, and finds rich veins of comedy along the way. Produced under the auspices of the Peanut Butter Theater Co., a starter venture for two Fringe veterans, director Natalie Novacek and stage manager Christian Carter, Oh the Humanity is a smart, satisfying palate cleanser for the upcoming Fringe Festival itself. It only runs 70 minutes (Fringe performances are limited to an hour), but manages to pack a tremendous amount of thought-provoking hilarity into its comparatively compact frame.
Eno’s playlets are essentially character studies; short portraits of people in the midst of crises both large and small. The first one, “Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured,” features Matt Sciple as a high-school football coach appearing before the press to explain his team’s unfortunate habit of losing. At first, he trots out the usual clichés about “rebuilding,” and tries to put a positive spin on things, but soon it becomes clear that he doesn’t believe anything he’s saying, after which the press conference devolves into a hilarious episode of existential over-sharing. Woe is the coach, for he has forgotten what winning feels like, doubts his abilities to lead, and has no idea how to change the unfortunate trajectory of his life, let alone his team. He’s a loser, by definition, because he has lost everything—the respect of his players, the love of his life, and pretty soon, it seems, his grip on reality. If he had a TV show, it would be called “Friday Night Bites.” He’s the anti-coach, and Sciple plays his slow slide toward self-loathing with pitch-perfect precision.
Next up are Mo Perry and Christopher Kehoe, sitting side by side on the stage, each apparently recording a video of themselves for an online dating service. Each is a “normal” person, but also a misanthrope, and as each of them stares into the camera lens to explain who they are, it becomes increasingly apparent that neither one of them quite knows. All they really know is that they are desperately lonely, and neither one can figure out why. The normal, everyday pleasures of companionship and family have passed them by. Their lack of self-awareness is the funny part; they are both unremarkable people for whom life has stopped making sense.
Just when it looks like all the skits are going to be about people suffering from everyday ennui, Eno throws in bit involving a PR spokeswoman (played by Mo Perry) for an airline who is talking to a group of aggrieved family members after a plane crash. There is a ritual to these types of addresses—acknowledge people’s pain, inform them how the situation is being handled, etc.—but this woman doesn’t know it. She seems to sense intuitively that there are no adequate words for this horrible occasion, but she can’t help herself. She starts nervously spewing everything that comes into her head—“maybe it was quiet,” “maybe they were all watching the in-flight movie and didn’t notice”—trying to find words that will make everyone feel better and finding lots that won’t. She ends up trying to convince her audience that, hey, we’re all falling planes, plummeting toward our doom—just at different speeds. So lighten up.
Using tragedy as a platform for humor requires a delicate balance of tensions and very good acting, both of which are on abundant display here. And it’s a good thing, because there is no set to speak of, just a couple of chairs, or a desk, or a lectern on the Intermedia Arts stage—so the acting has to carry it. Fortunately, the audience is in extremely good hands here; each of these actors has proven themselves on local stages over and over again, and their willingness to take on this quirky little collection of one-offs for a heretofore unknown theater company is a testament to the depth and strength of the local acting community.
As I said, if it were ten minutes shorter, Oh the Humanity would be a perfect Fringe show. But the Fringe doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, so think of it as a tune-up. 70 minutes of comedy for ten bucks—that’s a great value, by a theater company that, by its own admission, doesn’t quite know what it’s going to be. For now, Peanut Butter Theater Co. is just a name (their tag line is “may contain nuts”)—but with any luck, word of their work will spread. Don’t dawdle, though—there are only two more nights left.
Oh the Humanity and other good intentions continues at Intermedia Arts through July 24.