That Nothing You Do
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
Part chicken little riff, part cheeky The Believer cleverness, and all linguistic self-consciousness, Will Eno's Tragedy: A Tragedy is one of the more comically entertaining celebrations of nothing you'll see all year. That it exists in an idea cul-de-sac and has nothing to offer but its in-joke chutzpah shouldn't be taken as knock, merely a subjective opinion--one not as precociously penned as Eno does his. Tragedy is less an instance of style over substance than style instead of substance. Andy Warhol once said something about treating nothing as something; Eno comes off as treating nothing as everything.
Tragedy takes the form of a local newscast covering an ostensibly apocalyptic fact: the sun has set, never to rise again, plunging everybody into an infinite night. Frank (Rich Espey) in the studio holds down the broadcast, occasionally seeking reporting and commentary from John (Nathan Cooper) in the field, who gathers man-on-the-street interviews with a Witness (Michael Salconi); Constance (Jessica Garrett), who reports from in front of a home of people not at home; and legal adviser Michael (Nathan Fulton), who also reports about the governor's ongoing responses to the situation. Director/set designer J. Buck Jabaily's puts these four correspondents in a Hollywood Squares cube divided into four smaller cubes, such that the audience faces all four reporters at once. It's a setup that wisely mimics TV news' constant information feed, as all four performers respond, react, and otherwise continue even when he or she isn't speaking.
Both Tragedy's form and subject suggest it's a news infotainment satire, but satire typically has a target. (Plus, in this age of professional infotainers such as Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, reality is more consistently crazy than fiction.) Eno appears more interested in the limits of language to mediate the human experience, and his preferred mode of attack piles repetition upon obviousness until it becomes absurd. "Did anything at all strike you?" John asks the Witness regarding the sunset. "Were you struck by anything striking?"
That's Tragedy's entire game over its roughly 70 minutes, batted about at often breakneck speed by this wonderfully game cast. Its a wordy play where the words are doing all the work, even if that work is the workmanlike clod of hot-wiring syntax. Eno doesn't quite resort to "adjective noun verb" as a line of dialogue, but he dances right to that edge. Eno's two-character dialogues snowball into monologue rants where all the pizzazz comes from obsessively noodling observations and modifying modifiers, turning nouns to call things noun-y, and then folding them all back over each other ad nauseum. It is a dazzlingly baroque articulation of vapidity, but it's still a zero written by a highly trained calligrapher.
It is riotously funny though--in part because Tragedy wants to congratulate you for being witty enough to get its verbal jokes, and partly because the SCT cast makes these cardboard cutouts such manic fun. They're all wearing masks of the competent and composed that slowly peel off as the night and the broadcast wears on. That character unraveling is the lone throughline here, and it looks like an actor's playground. Espey's Frank and Garrett's Constance try to retain the most composure over their hysteria, a futile effort but fun to watch. More ribald, though, are Cooper's John and especially Fulton's Michael, who get to slowly boil into outright insanity. Fulton navigates Michael's psychic dehiscence with an almost musical control, as the trite legal and governmental newspeak almost imperceptibly erodes into lunacy delivered with the same intonations and rhythms of factoids and jargon.
By the end, you suspect Eno is trying to find something to say by running out of ways to say it--an idea echoed in the title's repetitions--but it never quite gets there. Instead, it resorts to theatrical conventions for its concluding change of tone and mood: The fast is now slow (dialogue delivery), the confident is now unsure (the newscasters moving from those who provide information to those equally uninformed), and the funny is now . . . well, not as funny. And by ending on a pause, the play invites meaning to be grafted onto it that just isn't there. Tragedy: a Tragedy has a surefire grip on what makes the right now so discombobulating, but that's about it. And while you'll laugh the entire way through, it still feels as benign as tweeting/status updating a TinyURL link to a Daily Show video segment as a statement of political conviction.
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