Oh, the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre | Theater review

Average folks face existential questions in Will Eno’s bleakly funny collection of short plays.

1/5
Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

John Gawlik in Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre

2/5
Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

James D. Farruggio in Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre

3/5
Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

Brittany Burch in Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre

4/5
Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

Brittany Burch in Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre

5/5
Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

Brittany Burch and John Gawlik in Oh the Humanity (and other exclamations) at the Gift Theatre

Playwright Will Eno’s body of work is populated by everyday existentialists, average citizens who are often surprised to find themselves grappling with big, bleakly funny questions of contemporary life and death. That’s perhaps nowhere as evident as in this 2007 collection of short pieces, receiving its Chicago premiere at the Gift. A coach’s post-game press conference veers into rueful musings on aging and lost love. An airline spokeswoman addressing the families of those killed in a crash goes uncomfortably off-message. A man and woman recording their profiles for a video dating service spiral into confused non sequiturs of loneliness. (“I’ve been described as the Girl Next Door, by neighbors,” she says earnestly.)

The five playlets in Oh, the Humanity! are efficient delivery systems for Eno’s craftsman-like way with language; his characters speak in precisely twisted turns of phrase, halting rhythms and epigrammatic bursts. “Did any one of us have what he would call a winning season? And what would that even look like?” the coach implores us. “And could someone tell me, while we’re at it, when is high school over, when comes high school to its high schoolish end? When begins my true life as me on earth?”

Experiencing these brief setups and deliveries back-to-back-to-back also underlines Eno’s tics, mainly his heavy reliance on direct address—a style of delivery he also uses in Tragedy: A Tragedy, The Flu Season and his Pulitzer finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing). It’s a manner that runs the risk of sounding, well, mannered.

Luckily, director Michael Patrick Thornton and his terrific cast understand Eno’s blend of unconventionality and compassion. John Gawlik is pitch-perfect as the unnamed coach in the opening scene, while Brittany Burch and James D. Farruggio are winningly wavering as the video daters. If the later scenes lose a little steam, at least everyone’s speaking with the same humane voice.

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