There are plays in which plenty of stuff happens but little gets said and there are plays where not a lot is said but plenty happens – and there is actually huge difference between the two. Will Eno’s Title and Deed, currently playing at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater at the Signature Center in association with Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland, certainly falls into the latter category. Essentially an extended monologue featuring a speaker who has left the home he knows behind, this assured work knows exactly where it is going.
I don’t know if Eno, the aloof, clinical playwright of Middletown and Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a deeper thinker than most or if his askew perspective merely makes him privy to angles of observation that escape the bulk of us. His works aren’t for everyone, creating room for self-reflection without spoon-feeding any of it. And the nameless man in Title (played by Irish actor Conor Lovett) comes from an unspecified homeland (though we can easily infer it’s Ireland), making him a de facto surrogate for Eno himself, if not in background, then certainly in mentality.
As though he had just met us and were trying to make new friends, Lovett’s character stands alone on designer Christine Jones’ stark stage, addressing us with tales of his past relationships and current predicaments, and the actor uses a deliberate awkwardness and a childlike naiveté to suggest an openness but not stupidity. Of course, as in all Eno plays, the dialogue is the true star, as the playwright’s humorous words are both analytical and poetic. (“Trace the origin of any word, and if you’re half a man, and I can say without bragging I am, or half a woman, which is sort of my type…”) Lovett’s character speaks of situations in elliptically funny ways, combining Beckett with the rope-a-dope delivery of the great comedienne Wendy Liebman. It’s work, sitting through a play like this, particularly for the more visually-minded than auditory-inclined audience members.
And for a while on the night I saw it, I was mostly disengaged by Title, despite director Judy Hegarty Lovett’s professional direction. Then something wonderful happened: there was a fire alarm. A confusing one, since audience members were unsure whether it was real or part of the show, or whether to vacate their seats or stay put if it was real. (It was a real alarm, but harmless, and we sat.) This was apparently a necessary breakthrough. Afterward, however, Lovett seemed more committed to the work – or perhaps the audience, grateful just to have not died, had found a way to connect to the play better on their own. Either way, the rest of the play flowed like honey, with Lovett’s character’s ruminations on the world and individuals’ roles in it making far more emotional sense than they initially had.
Title is top-level drama, so interior that it almost seems completely lacking in actual narrative entertainment. But to think that would be to not give this challenging show a chance. Title will likely provide different experiences to different people. What one gets out of this show depends on what one brings to it. Kind of like life.
Title and Deed
Presented by Signature Theatre Company in association with Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland at Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. May 20-June 17. www.signaturetheatre.org.
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