Letters to America: Crave is initially confusing, but its language envelopes you.
Letters to America: Crave is initially confusing, but its language envelopes you.

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Likewise horrifying and lovely, likewise less conventional play than pain-drenched poem (or maybe a kind of anguished string quartet), Sarah Kane’s intricately layered Crave sets four nameless people speaking to and past one another, each underscoring the necessity and relative impossibility of human communication.

Don’t let the strained cries keep you from laughing occasionally, though: This is a playful—yes, playful—if punishingly difficult script, an hour of non sequiturs and double entendres and thought-fragments so disjointed as to seem aleatoric, though in fact they’re shaped with exquisite care. The cast of Jeremy Skidmore’s gracefully moody production handles it all with a gratifying contrapuntal precision. It’s the first production in the Ark, the intimate black-box space at the new Signature complex, and a departure for Signature it certainly is: Kane was one of the noisy new lights of recent British theater, a playwright whose ferocious promise came with its share of demons (she would commit suicide, in fact, not long after the triumph of Crave’s 1998 premiere), and her appetite for formal experiment was equaled only by the bluntness and brutality of what she put onstage.

There’s no plot, let’s be clear about that—though Kane offers anchors. Paraphrases of Beckett, a reference to a trendy New York restaurant, quotations from The Waste Land crop up now and again, and shards of what might be narrative threaten to emerge from time to time as details of character coalesce. Kathleen Coons and Deborah Hazlett are C and M (the characters are identified only by initials), a younger and an older woman; Joe Isenberg and John Lescault are B and A, a younger and an older man. B dallies with M, or perhaps the cross talk only makes it seem as if their separate stories have a common thread; C and A tiptoe warily around the aftermath of a hideous confession, or perhaps they’re only two voices in the dark, wailing consonant stories into the void.

Kane provided no stage directions to clarify what her dialogue only hints at, though the hints are certainly rich and ominous enough; abetted by Tony Cisek’s charcoal-sandbox set and Dan Covey’s virtuoso from-the-gloaming lighting, Skidmore nudges the play in the direction of clarity about the implied relationships, permitting the characters more physical contact and more direct address (more intimacy, if you can use that word about Crave) than many productions. It’s a humane approach—though as Kane’s fragmented speeches keep insisting, there’s as much pain as there is pleasure in any human contact.

In any case, what happens to Crave’s characters isn’t nearly as important as what happens to the audience watching it: This is a Rorschach blot of a play, a stark and insistent demand for witness and response. So don’t go to Crave looking to be entertained, and don’t go looking for comfort—but do, for the sake of all that’s difficult, go.