Early Monday afternoon, a rumor flickered across Twitter about a possible gunman on a Big Ten campus. The report was false, but for a moment it was terribly easy to believe it was all happening again.
The same can’t be said for “Pluto,” an abrasively cagey new play that takes the grim American phenomenon of school shootings and wraps it in drama-school layers of whimsy and supernatural mystery. The setting is a suburban kitchen, where a mother tries to talk to her college-age son and where inappropriately quirky distractions rapidly pile up. A radio switches on by itself. A refrigerator rumbles with surround-sound force. In the corner sits a three-headed dog, and — guess what? — it talks.
That dog is played by Kimberly Gilbert, the busy Woolly Mammoth actress who can’t help being brilliant in the role. (Gilbert’s understated intellectual turn is just right, even though the gimmick itself is quickly off-putting.) Jennifer Mendenhall, another Woolly vet, is on hand as the mother, and she puts a supple, tremendously empathetic face on things once playwright Steve Yockey clears out all his mini-mysteries and lets this anguished woman talk to her troubled son.
Gilbert and Mendenhall guarantee that this production at Forum Theatre has two feet on the ground. But Yockey keeps yanking things into midair, teasingly lofting hints about what’s really going on even though you quickly figure out we’re headed for some sort of post-shooting limbo. How? It’s 9:30 every time someone asks. A mouthy girl barges into the kitchen and swaggers around unnaturally. The dog speaks fluent astrophysics, and the mother doesn’t want to talk about her dead husband to her fragile kid.
That even family members don’t always see each other clearly is part of the theme, but the specter of shootings rolls over that like a tidal wave. The plot is a puzzle of improbabilities that basically amount to a delaying tactic. You know the script eventually will make good on all the hints it drops, but by then you won’t care. It has spent too much time missing the point.
Forum is an admirably tough-minded small company, and director Michael Dove (the theater’s artistic director) competently puts together the elements of a promising show. The wide stage of the Round House Silver Spring’s black-box theater features a functional kitchen set by John Bowhers. Costume designer Frank Labovitz puts the actors in appropriate everyday clothing, and presumably he is responsible for the very good special effects as the aftermath of the violence finally gets revealed.
The acting is effective, too. Gilbert and Mendenhall anchor an alert ensemble that includes Mark Halpern as the slowly fragmenting son, Brynn Tucker as the attractive but braying young woman and David Zimmerman as a glib figure called Death. The cast keeps it watchable.
The script is part of a National New Play Network “rolling” world premiere, meaning this is one of four cities producing it this season. “Pluto” — titled for the planet that’s no longer officially the planet we thought it was, but also for the mythical Greek god of the underworld — finally looks its subject in the eye and makes a strong emotional appeal at the eleventh hour. (The show runs an intermission-free 90 minutes.) Anyone who gets in sync with the surrealism may eventually find its take on grief affecting.
On the other hand, anyone recalling “Columbinus” on this very stage in 2005 will remember being seriously unnerved by that unflinching dramatic investigation of the high school shootings in Littleton, Colo. From too many vantage points, this “Pluto” looks inexplicably coy.
By Steve Yockey. Directed by Michael Dove. Lights, Katie McCreary; fight director, Casey Kaleba; resident sound designer, Thomas Sowers. About 90 minutes. Through March 15 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road. Tickets $20. Visit www.forum-theatre.com.