First up is a press conference. A table and chair have been set out onstage. A man walks on wearing a baseball cap over casual business attire: shirt, slacks, striped tie, blazer. We hear camera shutters click. He takes his place at the table, says, "All right, everybody, let's just get going."
Turns out the man is a coach. We're never told what team he's with or even what sport. What's absolutely clear, though, is that last season was horrific—"barely even a shambles." "It was a 'building year,'" he explains, using the official industry euphemism. The situation called for a "new beginning."
The coach goes on to ply us with boilerplate about having the fans uppermost in mind and—in a phrase that made me think he'd spent some time with the Cubs organization—"trying to reverse a routine of losing that had grown ingrown and somehow strangely proud."
But then he veers off script and into reverie. I think the break comes when he talks about the new team strategy, saying the idea was to "betray that which had become merely habit . . . the thing that says to us: don't cross the street without looking both ways first; don't speak your mind and certainly never your heart." Because from that moment on the coach speaks queasily and comically from his heart, bemoaning lost love, reciting original poetry ("Rosemary, for remembrance; / Glucosamine and chondroitin for the joints"), and generally fessing up to the disaster that is his life. At one point he recalls staring at his reflection in a grocery-store freezer and telling himself, "You're not having a bad day—this is just what you look like now."
The four other short plays in Will Eno's collection Oh, the Humanity! (and Other Exclamations) run along similar lines: somebody gets into a situation that demands a certain type of public persona, somebody can't maintain that persona, and the despairing, amusing underpinnings of things get exposed. In "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain," a man and woman dissolve into honest uncertainty as each tries to record a perky video for a dating service. In "Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently," an airline rep dissolves into uncertain honesty as she attempts to inform and console the relatives of people who've just died in a plane crash. "The Bully Composition" has a photographer's assistant bringing unwanted intimations of mortality to her boss's shoot. And the title exclamation, "Oh, the Humanity," plays on the strategic self-delusion that makes it possible for actors to act.
In every case Eno gives us people who've somehow lost their social filters and can't help spewing the ugly truth.
Of course, the question of who we'd be if we were ourselves is the basis of most drama and all comedy—not to mention religion, science, and philosophy. It was certainly one of the great subjects of 20th-century theater. Anton Chekhov's characters are fascinating precisely because their efforts to find themselves are so ridiculously and agonizingly doomed. Ditto those of Samuel Beckett, whom New York Times critic Charles Isherwood famously invoked in his 2005 review of Eno's Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), calling the fortysomething playwright a "Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." When you come down to it, the five trifles that constitute Oh, the Humanity! simply testify to the fact that their author has learned important lessons from some excellent teachers.
Oh, but he's an extraordinarily apt pupil. The very fact that Eno is able to force the issue of identity using such slight conceits is itself a small wonder. And his language has a cracked power, whether he's being darkly funny (airline rep to plane-crash families: "Gravity, we trust, was a factor") or unabashedly tender (lonely woman to dating-service video camera: "I've waited and waited, and, look at me, I still am. In all recorded time, what were they recording, if not the secret and sideways dreams of people like us, lone people in serious wait.") If this is gimmickry, it's the highest caliber stuff.
And so is Michael Patrick Thornton's sharp, spare 60-minute production featuring Gift ensemble members John Gawlik, James Farruggio, and Brittany Burch—each of whom manages to find remarkable nuance in bewilderment. Just about the only misstep comes at the very end, when Thornton uses a mirror to indicate that we audience members are part of Eno's humanity. It's a redundant gesture by then: what we are is only too apparent.