“Funny” is a word the characters murmur from time to time in the “The Personal(s),” a gloomy but gripping new play from No Rules Theatre Company. They say it because they’re past laughter, stuck in the unshakable funk of a tragedy that has wrecked them for years.
So they stab at wit, never expecting anything more in return than a brief grin or a fleeting “That was good.” It’s one way they handle pain, and the drama’s three actors — Michael Kramer as a bar owner and part-time goofy magician, Anne Kanengeiser as his distant wife, and Spencer Trinwith as the barkeep who watches their bizarre rituals — perform with a fine sense of the shadings of grief.
The 90-minute play is by Brian Sutow, one of the co-artistic directors of No Rules, and it closely follows the plot of two obscure movies called “Blind Date.” The frigid 1996 original was by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh; Sutow sticks a little closer to the empathetic 2007 remake that Stanley Tucci wrote, directed and starred in with Patricia Clarkson.
Both films feature a voice-over by an unseen character that explains the couple’s misery. Sutow leaves that out, and he leaves his audience in the dark for quite a while about exactly what is going on as the husband and wife answer each other’s personal ads and meet in various guises.
That’s fine. “The Personal(s)” gets more than enough dramatic tension from the earliest encounters between Kanengeiser’s wry but sex-averse Janna and Kramer’s wired, hungry Donald. As soon as Janna reboots their first role-play game by asking to start over and backing out of the bar (an old-fashioned pub lined with vintage magician posters by scenic designer Daniel Conway), you understand how the couple use masks to try saying things that have become all but impossible.
“I’m trying to refind where things went right,” Donald says to Henry, the young barkeep, explaining the masquerades.
Trinwith plays Henry with the cautious concern of a friendly outsider; his muted performance in step with the delicate waltz overseen by director Josh Hecht, who keeps the pace measured and the acting understated. The engrossing intimacy is established during an early dance between Janna and Donald that works strikingly like a movie close-up. As Kanengeiser and Kramer slowly spin and then briefly freeze while talking in low tones, we begin to learn how terribly bruised the couple are.
Kanengeiser and Kramer are sad and stately, and while Sutow seasons his script with more straight-up punch lines than either “Blind Date” screenplay ventured, Hecht shrewdly maintains a tense mood in Signature Theatre’s 110-seat Ark theater. (The show transfers to Winston-Salem, N.C., in June, where No Rules has a second home.)
It’s a dark, quirky piece, marked by Donald’s half-baked illusions and card tricks — there’s a cheapo stage at one end of the little pub — and the way the tragic Janna keeps turning up like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat. You wouldn’t call that funny. But this couple, damned in the deepest sense, just might.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Brian Sutow. Directed by Josh Hecht. Lighting design, Cory Ryan Frank; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; sound design, Sam Kusnetz. About 90 minutes. Through May 18 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or go to www.norulestheatre.org.