The end of days strikes close to home in Impossible Theater Company’s new devised piece, [missed connections] at The Fridge, a snug but supercool gallery space near Eastern Market. The play follows four DC residents’ lives over three months after they learn that the end is nigh. The science behind this particular apocalypse is intentionally nebulous—something about poles reversing—but the characters ask big questions in the face of their impending doom.
Dawn (Ava Jackson) hates her job and lives with her nutty, dependent roommate Penny (Heather Carter). The apocalypse gives Dawn a good excuse to quit and head to California to be with family for the world’s last moments. Penny, who jerks, squeals, and asks to color on the walls in an enthusiastic but vague approximation of neurosis, is deeply shaken by her roommate’s departure and takes to wandering the city. That leaves Garrett (Nick Jonczak) and Amanda (Alexandra Linn), two journalists who join forces in covering DC news after everyone else at their formerly competing papers quits. These two story lines remain separate except for two impactful chance encounters.
The project is ambitious on two fronts: the first is philosophical. Impossible Theater takes an interesting step for apocalyptic stories, and the characters focus on the practical question “how am I supposed to pass my time?” rather than more stereotypical fist-shaking, hair-pulling end of days questions.
For Amanda and Dawn, the answer is easy at first: go home, find family. But when they’re forced to reconsider, they’re left with the same purposelessness faced by Garret and Penny, who don’t have anyone obvious to turn to. The answer proposed by Impossible Theater is that less deliberate interactions, such as chatting with a stranger on the train to work, can lead to impactful relationships and are always worth cultivating, even when there’s no time left. Hence the title.
The title’s spotlight on the main philosophical point highlights [missed connections]‘s primary problem: this message is presented with very little nuance. The show’s apocalypse strikes prematurely, wiping out all other plot possibilities. With only four characters in an ending world onstage, it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that they’ll become meaningful to each other eventually. When Garrett walks into Amanda’s makeshift office and asks if he can help her out, we’re pretty sure they’ll get along. When Garrett accidentally swaps bags with Dawn on the train, we know they’ll meet again. There are very few surprises left after the first few scenes, even though there’s a lot more to go.
On another front, the piece is ambitious in process. Rather than produce an existing script, the cast devised the piece over 8 months. According to cast member and company artistic director Nick Jonczak’s estimate, the play is currently about 90 percent scripted, with the rest improvised.
It’s not that lofty philosophical goals and a process in which the actors have to both write and stage a show are necessarily damning characteristics. But by going for both, simultaneously, Impossible Theater has set out into demanding territory, and the strain shows. Overly explicit lines telegraph expository information and express philosophical groping with equal bluntness. For example, Penny wails, “How is it, exactly, that I am supposed to live?” in a moment of crisis. This explicitness frequently lames scenes itching to more subtly examine what makes a week, or a conversation, worthwhile.
This unneeded overtness stems from the fact that these characters don’t sound like real people. In skipping the conventional writing process, the devisers may have sought to capture more authentic snapshots of human interactions, but they have not yet succeeded. (“You’re my only sister. You have to come,” Garrett pleads into an iPhone, asking his sister to Jurassic Park before he hears news of the approaching apocalypse). The lines are almost all on triple-duty, explaining the characters’ backstories, announcing plot developments, and bemoaning existential cramps. Tossed-in jokes about New Jersey and Justin Bieber feel like too little too late, much-needed dives at a more complete characterization possible, perhaps, in a more precisely crafted script.
Another source of the lines’ stiltedness is that this rendering of the apocalypse is pretty privileged. While Dawn is allowed to quit her office job, there’s no mention of the characters having trouble buying food or riding the metro, so checkout clerks and train operators appear not to have the same apocalyptic quandaries as the white-collar protagonists. More firsthand experience of the characters’ panicking world, rather than vague allusions to smoothie shops being gutted, would give the characters more to show and less to tell. With no conflicts but their own relationships and feelings, the characters come across flat.
Devised and produced by Impossible Theater
directed by Nick Jonczak
Reviewed by Robert Duffley
However, there are some touching individual moments. Instead of staggering after big answers, Amanda suggests that Penny find out if she’s allergic to dogs before it all ends—there’s a herd of abandoned ones wandering the Mall, she says. At another point, Garrett and Dawn sit silently next to each other on a train, keeping to themselves, unquestioningly preserving the reserved mores of a world with spare time.
The production design is excellent, establishing many separate spaces with taste and originality. Local audiences will enjoy recorded Metro rumblings woven by sound designer Aaron Fisher into an expressionistic soundscape. By day, The Fridge is a visual art gallery. Light designer Joseph Walls navigates that duality with finesse, highlighting the action clearly enough that it’s the obvious center of attention, but leaving enough light on the gallery’s paintings and prints that they seem like part of the set.
Clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, no intermission, the show feels like a draft. Its most imaginative touches are currently muddled with an overly explicit treatment of the theme, and the characters’ relationships suffer from a lack of depth. I came away thinking that, if smoothed to the level of subtlety which the technical aspects have already achieved, the story would have more meaningful answers to its larger questions.