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Having loved Will Eno's Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) in Jeff Storer's superb Manbites Dog Theatre production a few years ago, my expectations for a second Eno outing were high. But while the playwright's wit, dark fancy and punch-drunk love of felicitous wordplay are intact, Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations doesn't quite congeal.
Consisting of five thematically related short plays, Oh, the Humanity limns, with often-breathtaking verbal audacity, the emptiness, angst and fear — largely death-obsessed — that are the essential human condition. Within its contours are moments of candor and seeming callousness so stunning the only possible response is an appalled silence followed by a guffaw of incredulous, self-recognizing laughter, which is something of an Eno trademark.
The omnibus title has been taken from Herb Morrison's famous on-air description of the Hindenburg catastrophe. In recent years, perhaps owing to a memorable episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati," Morrison's anguished ad-lib has become an ironic punch line everyone repeats but of whom few know the origin. For Eno, the phrase carries resonant undertones. Viz.: "Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured," in which the eponymous figure faces a press conference after a losing season and reveals far more than his professional shortcomings; "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain," a two-hander for a man and a woman making dating service videos and giving contrapuntal and, again, unexpectedly revealing accounts of themselves; and the evening's best jape, "Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently," wherein the personal face of a major airline crumbles, horribly, in radiant bad taste — and all too humanly — following a mid-flight disaster.
The play's crucial moment is "The Bully Composition," and it's a curious paradox: The uneasy hilarity of the preceding three playlets disperses, and you can almost feel the wind going out of the playwright's sails. While the tone is, seemingly, more relaxed and certainly quieter than its coevals, a frisson of gentle tension obtains. Oddly, the cumulative effect is less compelling than the corrosive humor of its predecessors. It's beautifully put together, performed and directed here with exquisite balance, and, taken on its own, it would be a splendid mood-piece. Yet somehow in context, and in an almost mysterious way, what should be a benediction is a letdown, made to seem even more so by the brief, semi-serious coda that follows.
In a superb ensemble cast, David Berberian, Chris Burne, Derrick Ivey and Lance Waycaster all do sterling work. In her alternately thoughtful and clueless turn as a hopeful lonelyhearts, Lormarev C. Jones is beyond praise. And Katja Hill, as the Spokeswoman, gives a performance so richly and riotously detailed it nearly stops the heart. Bart Matthews' incidental performances of John Prine songs, singly and with members of the cast, are blissful assets, and Jeff Storer has directed with his usual openhearted panache.
As with Thom Pain, one is tempted to quote at length the playwright's store of brilliantly perverse observations and exhilarating bons mots. The warm, word-besotted spirit of Larry Gelbart lives on in Will Eno, crossed perhaps with vestiges of Samuel Beckett's anarchic contrails. Despite my sense that Oh the Humanity adds up to less than the very considerable sum of its parts, he is a writer to watch, and I'm grateful that Manbites Dog continues to champion his strange, elliptical and often astonishing voice. Whatever his influences, Eno is sui generis.
Oh the Humanity runs through December 18 at Manbites Dog Theatre. For details, see our calendar.