For the period of my life spanning the formative bridge years between when I first started thinking of myself as a playwright to the post-grad-school artistic identity-scramble, when asked who my favorite playwright was, I would answer Will Eno. Though I had only seen one of his plays live – a particularly caustic version of Thom Pain in a less-than-half-filled 75-seat house in Minneapolis that somehow perfectly captured that balance between pathos and pain that is so key to unlocking Eno’s linguistic existentialism – I went back and read the rest of his plays, marveling over the way each line felt like it was a set-up and punchline at the same time. I couldn’t write that way, but I wanted to.
Jump forward to more-or-less now, as I watched his most recent offering, The Underlying Chris, at Second Stage. I’d seen the past five Will Eno plays produced in New York City, and I no longer described him as my favorite playwright, although I would still list him among my influences. Stakes were present. Would this play prove my former self right or wrong? Was the work really so good after all? Or had I just been going through a stage of life?
“Stages of Life, Staged” could be a great subtitle for The Underlying Chris, as it turns out. The play tracks the journey of a person named Chris (sometimes Kris, Christine, Christopher, Kristine, etc.) from bassinet to grave. As rendered precisely by the ensemble cast, the actor playing Chris changes for each scene. There is a consistency in age (i.e., the young actors play Chris during the younger scenes), but otherwise we get a spectrum of age and race. Christopher is a Latino guy in his twenties. Kristine is a black woman who is forty. And so on. Intriguingly and semi-problematically, the live they’ve lived is, circumstantially at least, the same life, which makes it feel somewhat privilege-deaf. Would each Chris have been able to achieve this upper-middle-class life trajectory? Chris accomplishes quite a lot – a diver, a tennis player, a med student, a psychologist, an actor, and so on. The life is the track, and the actors playing Chris begin to feel interchangeable. It’s not about their lived experience, it’s about plugging them into the pre-determined “Chris” track.
This frame has the effect of a card trick, repeated many times over. The play shuffles the deck, holds out the cards, we pick our card, the play forces that “Chris” card on us, and the rest of the cards, when turned over, all have inspirational life quotes on them. The game becomes a Chris-centric version of Where’s Waldo. We identify the Chris in the scene based on signifiers we’ve been taught – a bad back, for example. The play establishes and re-establishes its timeline again and again, replaying the signifiers so we can figure out which actor is Chris in the new life stage, then teaching us one new thing about Chris that we can look for later. This is fun until it becomes tedious. The play knows this, and eventually does complicate the algorithm, but the complication comes a few vignettes later than I would have liked it to, leaving several middle scenes to languish fitfully.
I find myself in that mid-life stage wherein one languishes fitfully, so you’d think I could relate. Perhaps it’s accurate that the play trips up most significantly in the middle. It might have more to do with who is speaking the language than anything else. Eno’s wordplay, when given to the young characters, has a precocious effect, like kids saying too-wise things for their age. When spoken by the 20-40-year-old characters, it feels insufferable, like someone showing off about how smart and “deep” they are. The language feels most at home when spoken by the elder Chrises, a phenomenon I’m still pondering. Maybe you have to earn the right to say something like “Be glad you have one, a body, any size shape color. Be glad you were there when the Universe was handing them out,” without it coming off as sentimental, nostalgic, or retrospective.
It also seems like Eno himself has moved into a new stage, somewhere a little further down the life path, but not quite into the age-group where sentimentality becomes acceptable. He, as an authorial voice, is still at risk of sounding insufferable. This is underscored by his cloying interjected wonderment at the fact that we’re alive and living in our bodies – which, sure, okay, is amazing, but it’s also just what we’re doing. A little goes a long way, and Eno’s proclivity towards the ponderous becomes exceedingly redundant in its repetitions. It’s like, if he had written a commercial for Apple, and then replaced the Apple brand with life – how is this not just a “life” commercial? (Eno has already, in fact, written a play that doubled as a commercial, the Skittles Super Bowl “ad” that was a staged musical. Maybe what The Underlying Chris really needed was a corporate sponsor. Health insurance or something.)
All this said, there are transcendent moments in which everything comes together. A bizarre late-middle scene in which Chris is an actor (in a regional community theater play, it would appear) and we see him in a tech rehearsal giving advice to another actor who can’t say his lines without shouting them, is hilarious, heartfelt, and weird without trying too hard. The final sequence of vignettes, featuring Chris’s at age 80 plus, are grounded, thoughtful, and playful in all the right ways, and left me (as I suppose, life itself will) suddenly, unexpectedly desperate for more.