Portly, wearing a rumpled T-shirt and looking for the moment as if showering were an unfamiliar concept, Michael Chernus might not strike you as the most debonair of stage actors. But in "Jump/Cut," Neena Beber's scintillating new play about close friends and mixed signals, he's not any old schlep. He's the Noel Coward of schleps: cutting, icily articulate, irresistible.
The portrayal elevates slovenliness to performance art. Chernus plays Dave Hummer, a brilliant layabout with bipolar disorder who hangs around an apartment, devouring bags of potato chips, lapsing with heartbreaking self-awareness into paranoia. Amazingly, it's not a downer. On the contrary, his Dave is as charming as they come, and the effect of watching him is to be reminded that of all aphrodisiacs, wit is the most intoxicating.
The latter sentiment could also be expressed about Beber, who with "Jump/Cut" not only delivers a sophisticated theater piece but also propels herself onto the list of the nation's most intriguing young dramatists. With the help of a director, Leigh Silverman, who's acutely attuned to the play's cleverly shifting rhythms, and a cast deliciously rounded out by Eric Sutton and Colleen Delany, Beber has come up with the most absorbing new play of the season.
The production is a joint effort between Woolly Mammoth, which nurtured "Jump/Cut" in its new plays program, and Theater J, which in 1999 staged Beber's earlier work "Tomorrowland," a wry comedy about a writer on a children's television show. The success of "Jump/Cut" is a testament to the value of putting a lot of smart minds together. Having too many cooks may be a problem in some sectors of the commercial theater, but in this case the broth seems to have been enriched by synergy.
"Jump/Cut" revolves around a simple idea -- that sometimes the closer you are to someone, the less clearly you can see him or her. Perspective, in fact, is a vital element in the play, as Beber attempts to tell two stories at once, one about the making of a movie, the other about the intense lives of the moviemakers themselves.
The tale ostensibly tracks the romantic and emotional ups and downs in the lives of Paul, a budding filmmaker, and the two people who come to live in his apartment: Dave, his childhood best friend, who's so debilitated by mental illness that he survives only on a trust fund set up by his parents, and Karen, a graduate student who's fallen in love with Paul. Like Jimmy, Cliff and Alison in "Look Back in Anger," the classic John Osborne play that identified the disaffection in Britons coming of age in the 1950s, Paul, Dave and Karen are representative of a postmodern generation in America's urban centers. They're geek-hip, so fliply attuned to the culture that they can riff about anything. They live for irony, deftly shifting from commentary on the lyrics of Steely Dan to the whiny tendencies attributed to Jews.
They're media-savvy creatures too, and their lives are awash in the technology of imagemaking. Dave, for all his cerebration, can't pull himself away from the TV; he gets a kick out of turning off the volume and studying the bizarre facial contortions of singers like Tom Jones. Karen is enmeshed in a study of a 19th-century countess who obsessively photographed herself, and Paul, who directs commercials, is most comfortable dealing with people through a camera lens. (There's a stunning moment of clarity near the end of the play, when Paul reveals his immaturity in a single gesture with his camera.)
The vocabulary of filmmaking is rampant in "Jump/Cut," and a lens is forever looming. "I don't know where to begin" are the first words of the play, uttered by Paul, who's played with a disarming freshness by Sutton, an actor who demonstrated a lug's appeal earlier this season in another strong Woolly entry, "Recent Tragic Events." (In "Jump/Cut," he's supposed to be Jewish, but it's the least convincing aspect of the character; the more he talks about being Jewish, the less Jewish he seems.)
That opening line suggests a project that has yet to come into focus -- the entire story is a flashback -- and that notion of fuzziness is borne out in the play's early scenes; in the first 30 minutes or so, it's difficult to get a handle on where the story is headed. The moments feel scattered, as if they were mere snippets of footage, waiting to be assembled in a coherent way.
It takes some time for the elements of "Jump/Cut" to coalesce, and when they do, the play builds in astonishing ways. Dave is sick to death of taking the medication that imposes order on his thoughts -- the drugs allow him to function but make him feel as if he's not himself -- and he decides to stop. Chernus is superb in the commute between the mild, pharmaceutically controlled, and wildly dissociative facets of Dave's personality, a series, you might say, of erratic jumps and cuts.
When Karen, whose glib insecurity is incisively captured by Delany, begins to show signs that she is attracted to Dave's combination of weakness and strength, Paul resorts to a bit of manipulation that effectively diminishes Dave without making Paul look malicious. He persuades Dave to be the subject of a documentary about his illness. The result is that a destructive mirror gets shoved in Dave's face.
"Jump/Cut" is in no way a disease play. The real malady, for Paul and Karen especially, is a remoteness of feeling, a distance they're never fully able to traverse. They're not even able to explain to each other why they're together. "I think you love me because I do understand you," Paul says to Karen.
"Either that," she replies, "or I love that you misunderstand me in exactly the way I want to be misunderstood."
The dialogue has the crisp immediacy of the canny, everyday types in the work of another dramatist with a good ear, Kenneth Lonergan, and Silverman's production capitalizes on the script's inherent theatricality in all the right ways. The costumes by Michele Reisch hit a pleasingly drab note of understatement, and Erhard Rom's single set, bathed in Dan Conway's intelligent lighting, is a cleaner use of the Goldman Theater space than was evident in some other recent productions there.
In a show with so many standout contributions, it still must be said that Chernus stands a bit higher. He does what real actors do -- burrow down to the honest heart, and then leave it to us to find it, too.
Jump/Cut, by Neena Beber. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Sound, Jill B.C. Du Boff. Approximately 2 hours 25 minutes. Through March 30 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com