By Melissa James Gibson
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
It’s a great premise – you take one of the literary wonders of the Western world, the Odyssey, switch the gender roles so the guy stays home as full time Daddy Daycare for years at a time, pining for his wife, while Mom takes to the sea to conquer the world, or at least Troy. Add a present day media fixation twist with hip retro-fitted language, a surly confused teenager, and camera crazed paparazzi turned Greek chorus, turned cast-off moochers and you’ve got a sure-fire hit, right? Not necessarily.
This Current Nobody has the ingredients for an innovative recipe — fine actors, capable direction and solid backing from the renowned cutting edge Woolly Mammoth, but the end results are not particularly satisfying. Considering the throat-grabbing caliber of productions that usually hit that incredible stage, Current Nobody falls short and only nibbles at the edges of what could be a heart-pounding experience. .
Even ignoring that the title is a bit off-putting – like, what does it really mean, anyway–the story only hints at the real dangers of stepping outside the ordinary and the impact on the home front strewn with unfulfilled dreams, broken promises, and fallen pieces. Much has been made of the innovative script by Melissa James Gibson, and there’s no denying the neat concept. The script just didn’t have the heft needed to pull it off. The production never stopped feeling like a creative theater exercise that kept going far beyond its innovative ‘aha’ moment. Once we got the basic twists, I wanted some depth to deliver on the premise, but the text never moved beyond the obvious, and instead kept delivering sight gags, camera angles, clever language, and screening room projections that all stayed playfully on the surface of the story.
As far as I could tell, the title comes from the Mother’s reaction when confronted with the realization that she’s missed her daughter’s life moments. Penelope valiantly played by Christina Kirk, recounts the adventure-seeker’s worldwide journey to exotic and unknown lands filled with strange and dangerous creatures and life-threatening conditions. Mom survived the perils of the forbidding sea and unlike her unfortunate comrades who perished in the onslaught of unfortunate events, survived everything to return home. Still, those exploits could be considered “nothing” in light of the day-to-day home care mission, especially parenting the child she abandoned to make her mark. It’s a long way to go for a catchy title, but that’s par for the course in this play that sheds less light on the couple’s relationship than her dalliance with a Cyclops.
The setting and tone shift drastically in the second half where we finally see Mom in all her adventure seeking glory, holding the equivalent of a press conference complete with pictures.. Pen clicks through the photos with ease and is in complete control while recounting the adventurous exploits like she’s sharing from an ancient script. Kirk performs admirably here, with the perfect blend of confidence, strength and, most important, passion for her work. These are important assignments that she set out to do, chronicle parts of the world with just the right touch, that only her eye could capture. Kirk’s character relays this in a long impassioned monolog, and it’s an effective contrast to the desperate, rocking in despair, abandoned husband who can only wait in receiving mode. Yet, while the passage is beautifully written with remarkable language and description, all the gorgeous writing in the world doesn’t negate that it’s humongous and contributes to the sense of stagnation that starts to creep in, impassioned descriptions and fast-paced projected images notwithstanding.
What’s needed is some dramatic tension, something that brings us into the now instead of an adventure travelogue of what happened back then, and who pops up as if on cue, the daughter -and as any sit-com writer knows, nothing tops the ratings like a good mother/daughter blow-up. It’s quality writing, but the set-up comes across as formulaic to me.
The ending was most perplexing and a bit disturbing. Pen’s triumphant return to the homeland is marred by the busybody temptresses who have essentially moved in and taken over, mussing up everything in their wake. With help from the stoic bellman, well played by Michael Willis, who over the years has become family confidante, she does the ultimate clean sweep, wide camera lens showing the futile attempts of the sirens to escape down hallways, terrorized expressions, even, close up shots of splattered remains. In true reality show fashion, nothing escapes the camera, even if it’s cleaning up the mess around you in true blood bath fashion.
Now, carnage is not my usual cup of tea, but I’ll take my fill of it for arts sake, and there seems to be plenty going on around town about now. Kit Marlowe at Rorschach snapped a head or two, as did the ultimate killing machine Emperor Caligula himself at Washington Shakespeare Company where the cast members donned red gloves depicting the actual tearing out of the entrails. The killing fields in these two masterful productions were intrinsically part of the production, the actions were integral parts of what the story was about, while in this case, the gun toting Mom didn’t even have a Dirty Harriet premise to justify why whacking the home wrecking bimbos should make her day. The script didn’t prepare me for the horrendous violence that ensued-it just didn’t fit or add up. To be fair, I haven’t hit my Homer lately and wouldn’t have had a clue about the “suitors” being eliminated in the ancient tale were it not for the helpful synopsis in the press packet.
The minimalist set designed by Tony Cisek contributes to the stark and eerie style and tone of this world premiere, and director Daniel Aukin has been involved in its’ development for so many years, that he’s almost a collaborator. The production designers get it, as do the actors, Jesse Lenat as Od, and the daughter Tel, played winningly by Casie Platt, as well as do many of the patrons at Woolly who are used to an imaginative and creative theatrical stretch. Considering the abundant appreciation for the classical arts in this town – just look around at the architecture-this is a great place to see if this promising playwright can effectively shed more light on the “cost of absence,” apparently the inspiration for Current Nobody. For now, we’ll have to settle for a glimmer.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Where: Woolly Mammoth, 641 D Street, N.W. Washington, D.C.
When: Thru Nov 25th. Wednesday through Saturday 8pm, Sunday at 7pm and Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm.
Info: call 202-393-3939 or consult the website