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Theater J’s latest, a world premiere adaptation of David Grossman’s half-poem, half-novel Falling Out of Time, sets out to plumb the darkest depths of mourning, and in that (admirably earnest) endeavor, director and adapter Derek Goldman has proved utterly successful—punishingly so. This production is so tightly focused on its descent through the world of human suffering that almost no other emotion or experience is given thought. The production is undeniably a work of art, but it’d be a stretch to call this entertainment.
Our guide on this tour of parental-suffering hell is the official Chronicler (Michael Russotto) of a small village somewhere at some time. Russotto does for the audience what the Chronicler does for the town: His job is to describe everything he sees in florid prose and to give the other characters someone to talk to. The plot follows a man (Joseph Wycoff) who is distraught over the death of his son and decides he must find a way to reunite with his child. His wife (Erika Rose) is understandably not on board with this plan, but the man clarifies that he won’t kill himself; instead, he wants to drive himself as close to death as is humanly possible without actually dying.
This plan manifests in him wandering without food or sleep, clouded by loss, in giant laps around the village, letting his grief consume him. This unusual new hobby proves to be an instant hit with several other mourning villagers. Parent after parent joins the grief parade, a procession that consists of slow, distracting loops through and around the audience for almost the entirety of the show’s 90-minute runtime.
The plot shares a surprising amount of its DNA with the genre of body horror, particularly Junji Ito’s graphic horror novels, which frequently see townsfolk fall, one by one, to an obsession that drives them to gruesome self-destruction. Grossman’s townsfolk are walking a similar path, culminating in a scene in which they strip down, reveal bodies now webbed in veins and arteries, and lay in the dirt to attempt to seep beyond the confines of self and melt into the earth and each other.
The moment they’ve been trudging to all along isn’t really one of catharsis. Several characters remark that their sorrow makes it difficult to breathe; the audience is left to suffocate along with them, as the play is reluctant to offer any moments of levity or comic relief. Instead, when the play ends, the actors who have admirably twisted themselves into portrayals of abject sorrow for more than an hour without leaving the stage take their bows. Fin.
It’s hard to say who this play might be best suited for. Grieving parents would be apt to relate to these characters on a profound level, but the play is so relentlessly morose as to make that potentially an act of emotional masochism.
1529 16th St. NW. $17-$47. (202) 777-3210. washingtondcjcc.org.