"Blue Heart," which opened Sunday at the Studio Theatre, comprises two self-consciously experimental one-acts by English playwright Caryl Churchill, but Serge Seiden's focused, energetic and--in the first play--rather bouncy direction keeps things from bogging down in pretentiousness.
Additionally, the cast, led by Jon Tindle in double roles as a drunk and a con man, is excellent, and costumer Anne Kennedy has designed a superlative eight-foot ostrich.
The first play, "Heart's Desire," takes place in the Kitchen From Happy Hell, designed with sadistic cheerfulness--perky canisters, cute flowers--by Dan Conway. As the play opens, Alice (Catherine Flye) and Brian (Michael Tolaydo) await a visit from their daughter, who is flying in from Australia. She sets the table. He swipes a dollop of whipped cream off the refrigerated desserts. They both chat with a woman who appears to be Brian's sister, Maisie (Cornelia Hart).
An ordinary day, you might say, but boy would you be wrong: Starting the play over again and again, each time for a different outcome, Churchill attempts to undermine our bourgeois complacency by pointing out that, at any moment, anything could happen. In a series of Pirandellian twists, the play veers out from under the three characters and goes off in unexpected directions.
Among the unanticipated events are a broken ankle, a murder, a body in the back yard, a monologue about self-consumption and an invasion of children, and that's the short list, which doesn't include appearances by giant birds. As the play keeps beginning and beginning and beginning, you may think that if Flye starts setting that damned table one more time, you're going to have to charge the stage and stop her, but just about that time, fortunately, it ends.
"Heart's Desire" is another one of those plays in which the insanity that lurks beneath the placid surface of reality is taken out for a frisk. Insanity has been upstaging "ordinary" reality like this for decades now--since Ibsen, you could argue--and doesn't have many new tricks, but at least Churchill is antic and entertaining. Doing stylized turns of increasing desperation, Flye and Tolaydo are delightful, and periodically Tindle, as the drunken brother of one of the characters, shows up to add to the fun with questions such as "I'm unhappy! What are you going to do about it?"
Tindle metamorphoses from sketch artist to actor in "Blue Kettle," an odd and intriguing little piece about a man named Derek who deals with just having turned 40 by finding women who gave up their children in infancy and claiming to be their long-lost son. Tindle is wonderful, by turns enigmatic, hateful and wounded, and so are the actresses who play his various "mothers," particularly Flye, as a stiff and bitter woman who doesn't particularly want the happy ending she's been handed. Michelle Shupe is smart and sharp as Derek's appalled, confused girlfriend.
Unfortunately for anyone who goes to a play for something as banal as its story, "Blue Kettle" isn't about its strange little plot but about language and its limitations.
As things progress, the characters replace more and more of their dialogue with the words "blue" and "kettle." By the end you can't understand what they're literally saying, but their gestures and expressions still bring their emotions across. Other than proving that actors can do just about anything it takes to avoid being trapped onstage in the vacuum of an audience's incomprehension, I don't know what the point of this was.
Blue Heart, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Serge Seiden. Lights, Michael Giannitti; sound, Tony Angelini; costumes, Anne Kennedy; props, Susan Senita Bradshaw; dialect coach, Elizabeth Van Den Berg. With Kate Debelack, David Muse, Rusty Clauss, Nancy Paris, Lee Holzapfel. At the Studio Theatre through Dec. 12. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: Mama! Jonathan Tindle claims to be Rusty Clauss's lost son in "Blue Kettle."