In Lady Grey (in ever lower light), one of three new short plays by Will Eno performed together by San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theatre, the title character never introduces herself. The only person mentioned by name in the piece is a little girl named Jennifer — because according to Lady Grey (Danielle O’Hare) “a story needs a girl, and a girl needs a name.” As the piece develops and we learn of Jennifer’s difficult day at show-and-tell, we come to think of Lady Grey as the name given to a collection of verbal tricks designed to protect and conceal Jennifer.
Always get the last word.
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At the beginning, the Lady’s monologue wanders. Sometimes she talks about Jennifer, sometimes about a man in a blue shirt, and sometimes she gently interrogates the audience (“all you beautiful white people”). Her discourse constantly reverses itself — she says something and then suggests it’s too trite, she makes herself vulnerable and then attributes lewd thoughts to her audience. She’s both tragic and completely untrustworthy; even empathy might be a trap.
Lady Grey is difficult to settle into, perhaps because it is the first thing the evening asks of us. At times we can’t be sure whether it is O’Hare or her character asking for our indulgence. But where it counts — as her monologue ratchets up to its climax and Lady Grey jerks spastically between Jennifer’s story and her love affair with the man in the blue shirt —O’Hare gives the performance all of her power. When she stands feet together and hands spread apart in show-and-tell pose, Lady Grey disappears and we see an angry, terrified little girl.
Intermission, in which we watch two couples in theater seats interacting during the intermission to a play called The Mayor, is the most dynamic of the evening’s productions (all of which are directed by Rob Melrose). Jack (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) is bored, flipping through his phone. He says to Jill (O’Hare), “Nobody talks like that. Real people don’t talk like that.” His lines set up angry responses from Mr. Smith (David Sinaiko), who wonders how Jack can relate to a play about loss if he’s never lost anything. Jill is embarrassed by Jack’s reaction to the play; Mrs. Smith (Gwyneth Richards) is embarrassed by Mr. Smith’s reaction to Jack’s reaction.
Without doing anything more physical than turning and stretching in their chairs, the performers make of Intermission a moving sculpture. At first Mr. Smith and Jill, seated on opposite ends of the row, seem to bend toward each other in sympathy; he talks about putting down his beloved dog and she leans forward to ask what happened. Then Mrs. Smith and Jack, seated inside, form a pair within the four, as she tells him about going to the doctor to prolong her life, so that she can continue to go to the doctor. The play resolves with the couples turning back to one another, each relationship somehow made more harmonious by the interaction. It’s not exactly comforting, but it’s witty and satisfying, a nice break between Lady Grey and the night’s concluding play, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different.
Entering briskly, Mr. Theatre (Sinaiko) takes off his coat and sits down at a small table, set with a flowered tablecloth, a phone, and a vase of pink carnations. His face is tense, his hands are clasped, his leg twitches. We wait. In a spasm of violence, he upturns table and chair, scattering the flowers to the floor. Attempting to bust apart his invented world, Mr. Theatre launches into a shouted monologue that is at first hysterically funny and later, unbearably sad. He tries to escape theatrical clichés, but all he can do is parody them, riffing on Lear as he exhorts the fake rain to fall and warp the floorboards. He tries to answer the phone; there’s no one there, it’s a prop. We’re the only people he can connect with, and we’re paying to think he’s not real. In an act of desperation he uses the last cliché available to him — he calls attention to the fact that he’s a character in a play. He does this, not to point out the audience’s hypocrisy or question reality, but only to connect. Like a drowning man who says aloud, “I’m drowning,” Mr. Theatre says, in a hundred ways, “I’m performing.”
Empathy is what connects all three pieces (apart from the obvious — all three are meta-theatrical). Lady Grey troubles our response, she needs our help but she repulses it; Intermission asks whether it’s necessary to relate to a piece of art in order to understand it. Mr. Theatre begs us to pretend that we care. “Pretend I’m your mother, and I’m dying,” he says. Isn’t this almost exactly what we always do when we go to the theater? We see someone dying on stage, and we think about someone close to us dying. Only usually it’s not a conscious act of will. And it never occurs to us that the character we’re having these feelings about might need us to have them. Living and dead, onstage and off. During and after. Rarely has the simple and inevitable act of darkening the stage seemed so awful as at the close of Mr. Theatre.
Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays runs through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor in San Francisco.