at Prop Theatre
The one remarkable element in Still is Todd Rosenthal's sprawling desert set: an immense, gently sloping mound of dusty sand engulfs saguaro cacti and mesquite. It's the perfect neutral ground for an existential play, but unfortunately this world premiere by young novelist-playwright-screenwriter Todd Komarnicki is padded and pretentious, inflated with forced symbols, contrived encounters, idiotic gunplay, and enough pseudoprofound new-age dialogue to soften any brain. As imponderable as the plot is the huge stake that's been invested in Michael Unger's dogged staging. It's a sad waste of perfectly fine sand . . .
Drawn out over 140 minutes, Komarnicki's clumsy fusion of The Twilight Zone and Sam Shepard violates the cardinal rule of playwriting: Don't assemble characters onstage whose sole reason for being there is the playwright's manipulation. Michael and Melissa are a young college couple en route to the University of Arizona who stop in the desert to either assist or plunder a stalled BMW. There they discover a corpse and a supposedly mysterious figure, the Man, who seems to know their secrets, who may have killed the owner of the car, and who seems obsessed with reenacting the parable of the Good Samaritan. Though Michael and Melissa try halfheartedly to leave, they can't--the playwright won't let them or us off that easily.
Before the body of the driver mysteriously disappears (by the end, his car does too), the couple have daubed themselves in his blood, their loss of innocence smeared on their skin. Melissa feels drawn to the Man and his 12-step blather ("Your past is the whole reason for your present"), but Michael, exposed as a thief and fraud, grabs the Man's gun and tries to terrorize him into silence. By the end Michael and the Man have exchanged roles in a sacrifice that will be ceaselessly repeated--or, to quote the paradox on the play's poster, "One man's murder is another man's birth."
It's the rare drama in which so little happens over so long a stretch despite crisp exchanges and sudden fits of meaning. The torpor that engulfed the audience at Still was a special kind of tedium, a mix of paralysis from the banality of the Man's opaque pronouncements ("Start becoming!") and the sinking knowledge that the characters won't leave until they've literally kicked sand in our faces.
Offering what would have been persuasive performances if the script had been bearable, Unger's promising cast lose energy as they go along, as if drained by the synthetic absurdism. Darin Anthony gives the snarling, petty Michael a brutish defensiveness, but since the part consists of flailing a gun like an animatronic gunslinger, it's hard to see how much he brings to it. Dawn Maxey's Melissa fares less well, delivering her confessionals with a throaty intensity that hollows them out like gourds. Roy McCall is stuck in the graceless, unnecessary part of a dim-witted tow-truck driver, and Daniel Meyer is trapped in the thuddingly solemn part of the Man, striving for a Christlike resignation but suggesting only depression--a rational response to entrapment in this humorless, self-important drama.
It's symptomatic of the playwright's exasperating self-indulgence to force the Man in the first act and Michael in the second to waste dreary minutes digging holes in the sand, scattering enough dust to nearly asphyxiate the first two rows--all in the interest of acting out a dead metaphor.
A long overdue gripe: The time is here for playwrights and directors to cease having actors toke on cigarettes for purposes of character revelation (unless the theater has a great ventilation system), forcing actors and audiences to breathe secondhand smoke. At least use clove cigarettes or something. And the smaller Chicago theaters should start enforcing the city's no-smoking regulations in the lobbies (the bigger ones obey the law). You may think you're free-spirited artists thumbing your noses at bourgeois constraints, but in fact you're selfish slobs who don't give a damn about your own or other people's health. Cancer is not cool.