By Daniel MacIvor
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Ray King (Jason Stiles or, occasionally, Jason Lott) is trying to die. But the damn playwright (Jason Lott), in the throes of a dysfunctional relationship with a lover who specializes in telling inconvenient truths (Jason Stiles), won’t let him. Ray wants to confront his terminal illness honestly, and with dignity, but no one – not his condescending doctor (Jason Lott) nor his self-absorbed son (Jason Stiles) nor his faithless wife (Jason Lott) will give him an ear, much less their heart. And if this is beginning to sound like a review for Woolly Mammoth’s screamingly funny She Stoops to Comedy, think again. All of the devices in Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s extraordinary script – the play-within-a-play, the multiple characters played by two actors – are done for one purpose only: to bring us into the belly of the beast.
Some truths are so painful that they can be observed only indirectly, like the Sun during eclipse. The playwright – he has no name, and Stiles’ character refers to him only as “this one” – has a truth searing enough that when he names it, it reduces him to tears and incoherence. So he finds himself obliged to make up a story about this truth, so that he can say the words, and imagine that he has some element of control over it.
Enough said about the plot. This shape-shifting, gender-shifting, time-shifting snake of a play tells us what happened in the very first moments, and spends the rest of the narrative making us understand to whom and with what consequence. MacIvor skillfully weaves the playwright’s history with his lover into the story of Ray King’s sad pilgrim’s progress to his imminent death.
Much of the lovers’ story is comic. They execute a dance to Leslie Gore’s execrable syrupbomb “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” that is so bizarre, so sublimely awful that it would become a classic if anyone could watch it twice. I assume that director Colin Hovde and the actors are responsible for choreographing this little ballet which, against all reason, fully captures the spirit of Gore’s song.
But the other story keeps raking against their memories, and eventually the playwright finds that he must complete that story, and do so truthfully. MacIvor, who explored similar themes in You Are Here at Theater Alliance a few years ago, understands the human obligation to stare truth unflinchingly in the face, and that the job of art is to aid in, not distract from, that obligation.
In On It is done on a bare stage, and depends on its actors for success. Jason Stiles is one of the D.C. Area’s busier actors with good reason, and the wit and insight which he brings to his role is no surprise. The very good news of this production is the emergence of Jason Lott as a first-class actor. Lott, who has appeared in several smaller roles in Theater Alliance productions over the last two years, comes into his own in a lengthy, powerful role as the playwright and several of his inventions. He is wonderfully specific about his central character, who is an imperfect but basically decent man, and he moves into his secondary characters effectively and with dispatch, as does Stiles. Neither Lott nor Stiles attempt an I-am-my-Own-Wife type impersonation of the play-within-a-play’s characters. They are always the playwright and his lover, putting on the characters to gauge the story’s direction, but doing so honestly, without archness or artifice. Hovde moves the story along swiftly, crisply, and with great assurance, and the result is perfectly suited for Theater Alliance’s intimate theater space. This is a first-rate production, and results in a first-rate theater experience.
(Running time: 70 minutes) In On It continues at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE in Washington, until May 27. It follows a somewhat eccentric schedule: 8 o’clock shows on Thursday, May 3 through Sunday, May 6; Tuesday, May 8 through Thursday, May 10; Saturday, May 12; Tuesday, May 15 through Thursday, May 17; Monday, May 21; Thursday, May 24 and Friday, May 25; and Sunday, May 27. 2 o’clock shows on Sunday, May 6; Sunday, May 13; Saturday, May 19; and Saturday, May 26. Tickets are $26 and may be had by calling 866.811.4111 or going to www.theateralliance.com.