Pointed Commentary: Stiles gives Lott the finger.
Pointed Commentary: Stiles gives Lott the finger.

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Thank heavens the Theater Alliance scheduled In On It to open this past weekend. What with the closing of She Stoops to Comedy, Washington audiences might actually have had to go a whole week or two without a play about people putting on a play.

Thank heavens, too, that this latest meta-theatrical venture is as smart and stylish as the last—and surprisingly affecting, to boot. Daniel MacIvor’s worldly comedy deconstructs a fraying relationship by means of the unworldly play two lovers are trying to stage—which is of course the tantalizingly complex, rewardingly mutilayered gem of a play that’s unfolding in the bare-floored, black-walled H Street Playhouse space. (There’s no set designer credited, but the lights and sound, by Andrew Cissna and Mark K. Anduss respectively, eloquently shape space, place, and mood.) A man steps up to a crumpled bit of cloth, picks it up to reveal that it’s a jacket—one with some intense emotional associations, apparently. He murmurs a few lines about the vagaries inherent in how life happens, about how some things happen because we plan for them, and about how there are “things we have to invent sense for.” Then, out of the darkness, a sharp and sardonic voice challenges him: “Do you think that’s a good way to start?”

And we’re off to the revise-and-consent races, with scenes being played out, argued over, and often as not, rewritten or restaged. Between snippets of that framing play, which dances wary, lyrical circles around a dying man whose wife abandoned him and the emotionally battered son of the guy she runs off with, a touching picture emerges of the two men performing it: one wounded, one snappish, each of them ill-suited for the other, though perversely enough, there’s a chemistry that once made them think they were. Then, because plays within plays are the bare minimum these days, MacIvor takes In On It a step further and gives us yet another drama, one that offers glimpses of what that chemistry was like, back when its elements were still catalyzing: The meet cute, the booty call that was actually a case of crossed wires, the fall into something that could’ve been wonderful but wasn’t quite. It’s a portrait of what these two were when they decided to put on this play and of what they aren’t anymore, and like all such portraits, it’s ineffably sad—the more so because ultimately the play within the play within the play turns out to be an act of remembrance staged by a grieving solo performer.

The pair at the center of all this architecture are called simply This One and That One, and despite that hat tip to the universal, In On It is graceful enough to insist that what’s happening with them is inescapably specific. The insecurities, the class differences, the button-pushings all feel like genuine flaws in genuine characters—and they’ve all reared their gaudy heads, you’ll suspect, in the life of someone awfully close to the author.

At the same time, the grim dynamic of this disintegrating relationship will be painfully familiar if you’ve ever clung to one for the sake of what it used to be. “How would you like to look?” asks one of the twosome, exasperated. “Not the way you see me,” comes the reply, a little too urgently, and you’re surprised at how much bitterness 12 brief, bland little words can carry.

MacIvor has a way with economy, though, plus a gift for the lyrical and the hysterical alike. (Theater Alliance regulars may remember from last year that he tap-danced blithely with both in You Are Here; Fringe Festivalngoers will certainly recall that the latter was on prominent display in his Never Swim Alone.) The comedy in In On It tends to have an acid edge, to be sure, but there’s no shortage of it, and Colin Hovde’s cast snacks cheerfully on every last laugh line: Notable examples include a nifty spiral of a restaurant rant for the son of the dying guy, who’s played by That One (who’s played by a puckish Jason Stiles), and one brief but wonderfully camp character-breaking aside in the middle of a speech delivered by Brenda, the heartless outgoing wife played by This One (an amusingly constipated Jason Lott).

It’s true there’s the vague whiff of unrealized ambition about In On It; you sense, round about the 70-minute mark, that MacIvor’s working to bring the play in for a Something Big sort of landing. He never does, and in fact there is briefly the threat of a flaming, spectacular crash: It comes when the dying man’s doctor says the diagnosis isn’t certain, and suggests that the patient should live every day as if it could be his last.

Hovde and his actors wave that platitudinous disaster off, though. Stiles and Lott underplay that passage, refusing to let it collapse into mawkishness, and the play rights itself quickly enough. In On It wraps its intricate little interpersonal package up with a different sort of crash—and since that collision has been foreshadowed since the beginning, the wrapping-up is a whit too structurally tidy and detracts only a little from what turns out to be less a play about narcissism and more a play about self-examination.