There are plenty of moments in Eugene Ionesco's "Man With Bags" that audience members may identify as elements of a stress dream -- being unable to remember your name, or somehow missing the train that was just about to arrive. Or trying to place a phone call and hearing a voice that's not a recording but an operator in the flesh, inches from your face, repeating, "The number you have called is not a working number." She changes the message to repeated shouts of "Don't hang up!" after you finally get a busy signal, then offers some hold music, singing "My Heart Will Go On."
At the sound of the Celine Dion ballad, you know the dream has morphed into a nightmare.
But for a nightmare, the Longacre Lea production is for the most part pretty entertaining. It's best not to think too hard about how each scene does or doesn't fit with any of the others. Except for a central character, a nameless man (Jason Stiles) carrying two bags, and his apparent quest to return to his home town, there's little continuity in the play's plot or supporting characters.
Death and family are the clearest recurrent themes as the traveler finds himself in one confusing situation after another. Throughout the play, as the man talks to relatives, strangers and various authority figures impeding his journey, perceived constants such as the year, people's ages and the proximity of cities change by the minute. Even the passing of family members isn't certain, a circumstance that's presented as heartbreaking, when the man can't recall whether his mother is dead, and other times as funny, as in a conversation with his grandmother about why his grandfather suddenly left the room: "Where's Grandpa going?" he asks. "To die." "Again?"
The stage at Catholic University's Callan Theatre is kept a spare no man's land, adorned with bare hanging bulbs, a half-painted piece of glass that's suspended near the center, and the occasional place for the actors to sit. A cast of nine supporting actors play a couple dozen characters that Stiles's man interacts with, which adds to the production's fantastical feel: The same actress (Nanna Ingvarsson) plays the man's mother in one scene and a former girlfriend in another, for instance, along with a handful of other roles. And to drive home the point that none of these experiences is real, a young man (James Flanagan) eventually takes the place of one of Stiles's bags, crawling along the floor with his suspenders serving as a handle.
It's easy to enjoy "Man With Bags" superficially, appreciating each disparate scene for its comedy, tension or, occasionally, romance. For those who wish to dig deeper, however, there are plenty of messages, too, some of them metaphorical, such as the increasing heaviness of the bags the man refuses to let anyone else carry. Others are clearly expressed, such as this line that's spoken near the play's end: "Every once in a while, you wake up and realize you've spent your life sleeping."
As the full cast assembles onstage for the final, largely wordless scene, which begins as a sort of human traffic jam and ends as a group portrait, a rock ballad plays in the background. It seems an odd choice for a largely music-free performance, but it supplies a vaguely melancholic, unsettling atmosphere and punctuates the strength of Longacre Lea's production: Dreams don't have to be fully understood for emotion to break through.
Man With Bags, by Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Costumes, Gail Stewart Beach; lighting, John Burkland; set, Joseph B. Musumeci; sound, Neil McFadden. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Sept. 5 at Catholic University's Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 202-460-2188 or visit www.longacrelea.org.