Think of the fractured, jarring sense you get from listening to one side of a telephone conversation and you'll have some sense of "Visiting Hours," a new movement/theater piece by Wendy Woodson and Achim Nowak.
For 80 minutes, the small, harshly lit stage of New Playwrights' Theatre becomes a mysterious institution populated by six very troubled characters. They all appear to be in their twenties or thirties; sport mismatched, slightly punkish costumes -- boxer shorts and suspenders, a seersucker jacket worn over a bare chest, a corset and shorts topped by a housedress -- and communicate to us and to one another by means of quirky, oft-repeated exclamations, explanations and admonishments. Moving in stylized fashion, they group and separate like cells under a microscope, make exaggerated gestures, strike poses, collapse and revive.
These verbal and physical codes telegraph enticing but incomplete bits of information about each "patient." One man keeps referring to his "samples," giving the impression he's a traveling salesman on the skids. A woman shifts -- in hilarious Robin Williams style -- from one accent to another, which seems to indicate that she has multiple personalities. Yet after a time, these utterances aren't enough; they're not only enigmatic, but frustrating.
To add to the confusion, these performers also play the institution's staff members. One minute they'll be muttering psychotically, and the next they'll don white coats and begin leading some lunatic therapy session. In fact, Woodson and Nowak are at their most inventive when lampooning the psychiatric profession, creating a staff of touchy-feely, sadistic and overly analytic souls.
Despite the somewhat undernourished aspects of the script, the performance could not be better. The cast -- Ann Carlson, Rob Donaldson, Roberta Levine, Belinda Mello, David Woodberry and Nowak (substituting for Matthew Carnahan) -- shone both as an ensemble and individually. Their diction is wonderful, their understanding of the precise yet pedestrian movement first-rate, and they capture the seriocomic nature of the enterprise to perfection.
Bob Read's wittily ominous score, Nade Haley's stark, mobile set and Eric Poggenpohl's eerie black-and-white slide projections add immeasurably to this alluring puzzle of a piece.
"Visiting Hours" runs through Sunday.