By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
How does one cuddle up to a shadow? In "Current Nobody," Melissa James Gibson's wise and heartsome -- if occasionally precious -- new play, the inspiration is "The Odyssey" but the subject is separation of a contemporary variety.
The work, in its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth, exists most potently in negative space: the realm of longing. In portraying a modern idea of family, one in which a mother leaves home to travel the world to pursue a career, Gibson seeks to account for what can and cannot be reclaimed in a prolonged absence of affection.
Director Daniel Aukin's assured production explores this theme with touching clarity, particularly as it concerns the impact that deprivation has on the daughter, Tel (the effective Casie Platt). As the grown-up Tel coolly explains to her mother, Pen (a solid Christina Kirk), who's returned after a 20-year absence: "This isn't a reunion. It's a meeting. And it's nice to meet you, but you're a stranger to me."
It doesn't require two decades out of a loved one's orbit to feel the dagger in these words. Pen is stricken by the declaration, but in a world of custody fights and foster homes and foreign workers, the notion of emotional bonds severely affected by geographical distance is all too firmly entrenched. This isn't to mention the even more routine sorts of adjustments that have to be made daily by latchkey kids and others whose time with a parent might be painfully truncated.
Gibson is something of a troubadour of contemporary nomadic life. In the eccentrically titled "(sic)," the dramatist portrayed three 30-somethings at loose in the big city and unable to shift into a more mature and productive gear. With the often more satisfying "Current Nobody," she reaches back to Greek mythology to draw connections and distinctions between classical and modern interpretations of the fate of a family divided.
The play, running an intermissionless 90 minutes, is enlivened by Gibson's quirky and evocative way with words. Describing her reemergence after her long disappearance, Pen tells reporters that she's been "off the map." When they ask for more elucidation, she replies: "There's only the map -- and me not on it."
At times, though, the playful reconstruction of "The Odyssey" becomes far too academic an exercise, and the play bumps awkwardly into pretension. This is especially deleterious in the overlong monologue that Gibson allots Pen in the news conference marking her return. It's a smart-alecky, updated recitation of Odysseus' journey -- including references to the Cyclops and the Lotus-Eaters (oddly, however, no Scylla and Charybdis).
The jokey, Homeric name-dropping puts the audience between, er, a rock and a hard place. By the 50th tongue-in-cheek allusion to the epic text, you might feel the urge to shout at the actors, "We get it!"
Although it's the wife here who goes on the road, Gibson's story hews in other ways to the original. Pen is Penelope; Tel is based on the son, Telemachus; and now Odysseus is a stay-at home dad called Od (Jesse Lenat). The journey is not the point so much as the wait for its end. In the standard-issue bedroom of their apartment -- guarded by an omniscient doorman who goes by Bill (Michael Willis) -- Od feeds baby Tel and vainly holds out hope for the quick return of famed combat photographer Pen from her assignment covering the war in Troy.
Lenat offers an appealing account of a father transformed into an anxious Mr. Mom. As Pen's absence extends from weeks into years -- a screen over Od's bed plays a video of an interview with Pen on "Charlie Rose" -- Od keeps track of time passing by scratching hatch marks into the wall. Soon, of course, inquiring minds want to know about the husband's lonely vigil. So in place of Homer's suitors, the playwright ushers in a documentary film crew (Deb Gottesman, Kathryn Falcone, Jessica Dunton).
The image of Od, shifting restlessly, caressing the hollow of Pen's side of the bed, flashes on the screen. Lenat convincingly expresses Od's fealty to Pen, and so when at last she comes home, the relief Od is meant to feel is communicated in bracing fashion.
In contrast to the fantastical details of the story -- Pen, after all, describes a friendship she struck up with a Cyclops -- the physical realm of the play is conjured in the minimalist set of designer Tony Cisek. Helen Q. Huang's costumes appear to be drained of much personality; the show is all but staged in black and white. And the more sensational aspects of the play, such as the revenge Pen takes on the film crew, are reserved for the grainy video images up on the screen.
That seems to intensify the projection of simple, powerful thoughts and feelings among Pen and Od and Tel. You don't need to see much more than the blank face of a child to understand the implications when, to her, a parent is a nobody.
Current Nobody, by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; composer and sound design, Ryan Rumery; projections, Jake Pinholster; fight choreography, John Gurski. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 25 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit http://www.woollymammoth.net.