In Kathleen Akerley’s “The Interstellar Ghost Hour,” guilt and mourning express themselves in unusual fashion: via a reality-TV show titled “Home Cooking With Hammurabi.”
Yes, that’s the ancient Babylonian ruler hosting the “MasterChef”-style competition, glimpsed on an enormous screen in this mostly absorbing, often funny, occasionally puzzlelike Longacre Lea production. The cooking program is just one of the bizarre phenomena that Iris (Christine Alexander) encounters after trekking through space-time to visit her dead parents. She also wanders into an exorcism, and she discovers that her own adolescent errors have become the crimes in a TV cop series.
First glimpsed wearing an orange astronaut suit and padding into a retro-futuristic living room, Iris feels loving, grateful and bereft when she thinks about her parents (Scott Ward Abernethy and Julie Weir). But she also feels guilty for not having mourned them more, even though she knows their parenting was flawed. Maybe that’s why she is confronting that screen version of Hammurabi (Shpend Xani), whose eye-for-an-eye code of justice throws the concepts of guilt and grievance into high relief.
As time and (possibly) alternative universes lurch back and forth, Iris runs into Brian (Ryan Sellers), who’s trying to banish a ghost with the help of a paranormal consultant named Sam (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu). In a hoot of a scene, Brian’s real estate agent (Dylan Arredondo) gets caught up in the exorcism. (Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden designed the telling set. Lynly Saunders designed the costumes and Séamus Miller, the video.)
The acting is persuasive and engaging. Alexander’s often-flummoxed Iris and Sellers’s laid-back Brian are particularly winning, and Akibu’s flaky yet businesslike Sam, puttering around the space in nearly knee-high sneaker-boots, is amusing. The acting also is commendable in the many video sequences, which include the zany cooking show snippets (with ziggurat-style edifices zooming in and out in the background), and the more realistic-looking yet tongue-in-cheek cop show scenes. Miller, Tamieka Chavis, Vince Eisenson and Madeline Joey Rose all ace their screen turns.
Dramatist Akerley, who is also Longacre Lea’s artistic director, writes idiosyncratic, brainy plays that demand concentration and reward an appreciation of mystery. In “Interstellar Ghost Hour,” the temporal and personal relationships are sometimes enigmatic, but the elusiveness is usually interesting. Act 1 does feel too leisurely, however.
Overall, the humor and accessible sci-fi tropes, and the ingeniousness of the fanciful yet thematically relevant TV show conceits, make “Interstellar Ghost Hour” an intriguing, singular exploration of love, loss and aging. Above all, the play evokes the disorienting quality of bereavement and the strangeness of viewing one’s parents from different perspectives as childhood recedes into memory.
The Interstellar Ghost Hour, written and directed by Kathleen Akerley. Lighting design, Mary Keegan; sound, Neil McFadden; props, Solomon HaileSelassie; assistant director, Michael Sullin; dramaturge, Abigail Werner. With video appearances by Matt Ripa, Jon Jon Johnson, Emily Whitworth, Acacia Danielson and Megan Reichelt. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $15-$20. Through Sept. 9 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. 202-460-2188. longacrelea.org.