There is a sixth character in Cory Hinkle's new play, Little Eyes , who is not named in the program. The character's name is Fear, and it lurks everywhere, driving the action of the other characters, forcing them to react and behave in ways they might otherwise not.
Judy (played by Sarah Agnew) is afraid her husband has left her and that she isn't up to the task of raising their son, Martin, by herself. Young Martin (Braxton Baker) is afraid his dad is never coming home. The neighbors across the street, Mark and Steph (Adam Whisner and Maggie Chestovich) are afraid their marriage is falling apart. The reasons: 1) They can't conceive a child, and 2) Mark has fallen in love with Judy the neighbor. Mark is afraid his wife is going to find out about a dalliance he had with Judy at a recent block party, but he's more afraid of the idea that he isn't living the best, most rewarding life he can.
The only character in Little Eyes whose behavior isn't driven by fear is a strange man named Gary, who shows up in the neighborhood wanting to take photos of the suburban landscape for a mysterious "project" directed by the town's mayor. Played with exquisite creepiness by Luverne Seifert, Gary's cheery optimism is a source of comfort for the wives, and his insistence that the future is going to be better than the past—just as soon as the mayor's fantastic plans for the city are implemented—is the vision of hope that blinds them to Gary's more sinister side.
Generalized anxiety is an almost inescapable malady of the modern era, and a good subject for a play. It's not hard to locate the source of everyone's jangled nerves. What we call "news" is nothing more than, as journalist Linda Ellerbee once put it, "the daily record of human failure." In the past, however, bad news arrived on our doorstep in limited doses, and the really horrible stuff was generally happening overseas. That's all changed. Since the advent of the CNN, the Internet, and the events of 9/11, the daily stream of human failure is constant, and the possibility of something bad happening isn't just theoretical. At any given moment, anywhere in the country (in a Tucson shopping mall, say), some wacko could come unhinged and make a week's worth of headlines. Shit happens, and the feeling everywhere is that it happens a lot more than it used to, and affects more people than ever. Little Eyes takes place in "the months after 9/11," but it doesn't have to. In fact, the play would arguably be more effective if it weren't so time-pegged, since the existential malaise the play addresses is so pervasive, and the current sources of cultural anxiety—terrorists, TV commercials, cable news shows, magazines, cop shows, the economy, politicians, flu pandemics, food allergies, global warming, Sarah Palin—are so terrifyingly diverse.
That said, the historical fact of 9/11 is never mentioned, and most of the tension in the play is created by a cloud of Pinter-esque oddness that suggests much more darkness and deviance than it actually delivers. Luverne Seifert's Gary is an amiable oaf on the surface, a man whose belief in the wisdom and goodness of "the mayor" is unconditional. His mere presence seems to calm Judy and Steph down (a strangely sexist turn), but his mannerisms are so bizarre that it's hard not to imagine he is playing some devious, as-yet-unexplained game. In the end, however, Gary's ulterior motives aren't all that outrageous—which makes the climactic moment of the play a bit disappointing. Seifert is a fantastic actor, and he inhabits this role with his usual genius, but his performance isn't enough to carry the play. Also, Sarah Agnew's talents are pretty much wasted on a character who has no depth. Judy's entire being can be summed up in the phrase: "Single mom trying to cope."
Developed by the Workhaus Playwrights Collective, this is a new play, so perfection isn't expected. The first half works much better than the second half, which is riddled with false notes and curious behaviors and motivations all around. The neighbors, Steph and Mark, are amusing at times (especially when Steph is pretending to pregnant by stuffing a pillow up her shirt), but their whole purpose in the play runs off the rails at some point—specifically, the point when Mark wants to leave his wife and run away with Judy, which is funny for a few seconds but ultimately implausible.
Little Eyes is one of those plays that bubbles along with a funny line here and an amusing scene there, but never really jells into a cohesive whole. In order to protect themselves from that which they fear the most, each of these characters believes in something along the spectrum of illusion to delusion, but the reasons for—and consequences of—their denial are nebulous at best. Much more could be done with the play's premise, and the core motivation of each character, including Gary the stranger, needs to be more believable in order for the darker, more absurd aspects of the play to work. Otherwise, it's just a sit-com that bounces around in the netherword between situations and comedy, shortchanging itself on both ends.
Little Eyes continue at the Guthrie through April 24, guthrietheater.org.
Photo: Braxton Baker (left) as Martin, and Luverne Seifert as Gary.
Photo credit: Kevin McLaughlin