“Life is motion. Forward motion.” That philosophy, expressed by an adventurous character named Ada Ann, becomes a leitmotif in “Last of the Whyos,” a play receiving a world premiere from Spooky Action Theater. It’s too bad, however, that dramatist Barbara Wiechmann didn’t apply that principle to her script. A tale of time travel, sideshow freaks and mysterious existential patterns, “Last of the Whyos” is daring, poetic and — in director Rebecca Holderness’s production — nicely acted. But it has too little vigorous forward motion and is exasperatingly long.
You do have to admire Wiechmann for the boldness of her story, which centers on Eddie Farrell (Michael Kevin Darnall), the brooding leader of an 1880s New York gang called the Whyos. After Eddie hurtles through time, landing in 1980s Coney Island, he makes a series of oddball acquaintances, including an alligator-skinned sideshow freak named Ruby (Elliott Bales) and Ada Ann (Tia Shearer), who tends the sea lions at the aquarium. Eddie also has eerie encounters with a figure who may be his doppelganger — a lonely corporate lawyer known as the Businessman (Séamus Miller). As connections form among these misfits, Eddie struggles to find the courage to embrace the new.
As she did in Spooky Action productions such as “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wedding Dress,” Holderness deploys arresting imagery in such a way as to draw out the resonance of three-dimensional space. The central visual here is a boardwalk stretching back into darkness; occasionally, video of waves appears on nearby vertical surfaces. (Vicki R. Davis designed the set, Fly Steffens the projections and Matthew E. Adelson the atmospheric lighting.)
This rather bleak landscape is often haunted by Sweeney (Randolph Curtis Rand), a 19th-century ward boss who wields power over Eddie and may be privy to supernatural mysteries. He cuts a striking figure in his Victorian dandy’s garb, complete with cane and pocket watch. (Erik Reagan Teague designed the smashing costumes.) Also eye-catching are Lolly (Dane Figueroa Edidi), a fat lady in the sideshow, and Priscilla (Bette Cassatt), a hairy prodigy who is Ruby’s wife.
In some Spooky Action shows, the visuals have outshone the acting. That’s not the case here: The performances are confident and engaging. Darnall capably captures Eddie’s frustrated moodiness; Shearer (who also plays the Hot Corn Girl, a 19th-century moll) gives Ada Ann a winning impudence and spontaneity. And Miller suggests the haplessness and darkness that mingle in the Businessman.
But, as scripted by New York-based Wiechmann, the interactions among these and other characters can have a dawdling or spinning-in-place quality. Conversations often take too long to achieve their goals — a sequence in which Eddie lyrically describes his insomnia is a case in point — or they strike out along routes that are more heartfelt than dramatic. A subplot involving an odd shift in Ruby’s religious convictions doesn’t really go anywhere.
Many of these problems could doubtless be addressed in a rewrite of the script. “Last of the Whyos” has a visionary strangeness; its colorful characters speak to fundamental human anxieties about standing out, changing course and making choices. Given these strengths, the play surely deserves more momentum.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Barbara Wiechmann. Directed by Rebecca Holderness; sound design, David Crandall; properties, Larry Rodman; assistant director, Kevin Crawford. With Ryan Alan Jones, Sha Golanski, Matthew Marcus and Stephen Krzyzanowski. About 2
Call 202-248-0301 or visit spookyaction.org.