With his robust, erotically charged stagings of Nijinsky’s Last Dance, Shakespeare’s R&J, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Joe Calarco has so firmly established himself as an assertive director of other writers’ work that it’s odd to find himas playwrighttrying to fashion an entire evening from indirection.
Calarco’s In the Absence of Spring, currently receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre, is a peculiarly oblique chronicle of a day in the life of seven New Yorkers coping with lingering grief on the anniversary of an airline disaster that claimed the lives of their loved ones. The characters are mostly strangers as the lights come up, but by day’s end, a second disaster will have united them. Sort of. What it will really have done is connect them by authorial fiat so they can proclaim that it’s better to share sorrow and move on than to husband grief and withdraw from life.
If that message seems self-evident, there’s nothing very obvious about the route Calarco travels in delivering it. He begins with a roar of jet engines and a striking imagea woman rising from a pile of rags in a snowfallthat lends a sense of foreboding as his day of reckoning dawns, brisker and colder than an April morning has any right to be in New York.
Unseasonable weather isn’t the only indication that something’s amiss, though it’s sufficient to rattle filmmaker Christina (Vanessa Lock), who has spent the last five years researching and creating a documentary about the plane crash in hopes of unearthing evidence that her sister was not aboard. Unaware that her lover, Larry (Michael Glenn), has just left the master copy of her film in the back of a cab, she screams into a phone that she’s damned if she’s going to give up hope.
Larry is also rattled, though for different reasons: While crossing Central Park, he spotted a squirrel devouring a mouse. Squirrels aren’t supposed to be carnivores, he notes worriedly to a waitress (Susan Lynskey), who, upon being fired for paying too much attention to his story, goes home to find her mother (Susannah Berryman) obsessively singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and staring at a photo of the husband she lost in the crash.
Meanwhile, in a restaurant across town, Jason (Erik Sorensen) is sneezing with hay fever though there’s no pollen in the air, making eyes at a waiter (Timothy Getman) who reminds him of a lover who went down with the plane, and listening to a friend (Minda Harden) as she debates whether to use the proceeds from her phone-sex job to travel to Israel or to Equatorial Guinea, both of which strike her as safe spots to sit out the coming apocalypse.
Got all that? Well, there’s more. Jason thinks the wet dream he had the morning of the crash was a prophecy; he’s been kicking himself for five years for not saying something that might have saved his friends. Now he’s had another wet dream and is determined to save someone…though whom, from what, and by what means, he hasn’t yet figured out. And just when he seems to be gathering all the other plot threads together in his quest for closure, the script takes a fantastical turn and sends him off to Ireland. At least I think it’s Ireland, from the accent of the woman who begins dismantling the asphaltlike stage floor and uncovering evidence of a spring thaw underneath. It might just be a hallucination, though. Or purgatory.
Whatever. Calarco, who has previously proved deft at finding clarifying visuals for his complicated conceptual approaches to Shakespeare and others, is just the guy you’d call in to make sense of all this if the script were by someone else. But here, he’s mostly creating stage images that are more stylish than revealing. Scenic modules wheel into viewrestaurant booths, beds that subdivide when necessary, a stagewide barthen disappear to make room for others. A solid-looking brick wall proves permeable and compartmentalized, and the stage floor splinters and spouts fire before revealing a grassy substratum.
All of this is impressively managed by designer James Kronzer, eerily lit by Chris Lee, and backed with seat-rattling sounds by Brian Keating. Still, it would be hard to say that the stage pyrotechnics make the evening’s message more startlingor even more intelligible. Nor are the performances as much help as they might be in explaining what these seven people are doing on stage together. As the filmmaking pair, Glenn and Lock are persuasively dysfunctional but barely offer a clue as to why. Sorensen and Getman make an attractive gay couple, but, except when they’re in bed together, there isn’t a noticeable spark between them. Berryman and Lynskey are a plausible mother-daughter dyad, but Harden, though she’s brassy as all get-out, can’t overcome the fact that the phone-sex operator she’s playing is mostly on hand for decoration.
Calarco is savvy enough in his staging to give individual scenes sparkle; a sneeze-punctuated copulation sequence is a hoot, for instance. But too often, his central ideas get demonstrated, illustrated, and, finally, overarticulatedespecially in the evening’s final moments, when everyone on stage seems intent on making one last helpful pronouncement (“We can’t all save the world”….”Sometimes it’s best to just sit back and allow yourself to be saved”) before the lights dim. CP