The first clue in a detective mystery—perhaps a cryptic note found at the scene of a fatal accident—is often as opaque as it is intriguing, demanding further investigation despite, or maybe even because of, its apparent innocuousness. Such is the case with the studiously cryptic synopsis posted on Studio Theatre’s website for Daniel Kitson’s latest “story show,” A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order.
Aside from listing some praise for and a short description of the well-reviewed comedian and monologist helming the show, the webpage sums up the plot of Disagreements with only a long list of synonyms for the disagreements that are likely to be found in the show. That online synopsis amounts to the only information that’s really been made publicly available—no programs or press kits were handed out on press night.
All this amounts to a strong suggestion from Kitson and Studio that any potential theatergoers should walk into this two-hour feat of storytelling with no idea of what to expect. As is the case with a bicyclist racing down a midnight street with no headlamp, the twists and turns that lurk in the dark ahead are more surprising for those who never see them coming in the first place.
Those who can’t abide spoilers will have to stop the ride here, knowing not much more about this premiere than the kind of generic (but true) one-word platitudes that might appear on a lazy promotional poster: Hilarious! Surprising! Sentimental!
The biggest reveal about the show, the one that must be dispensed before even beginning to discuss what’s really going on here, is that there isn’t really such a play as A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order. From the jump, Kitson assumes the role of a perfectly unreliable narrator, claiming that he was commissioned to make this show based on little more than the strength of his “oeuvre” and the promise of that (atrocious) title, that he wasn’t able to start writing it until a month before opening night, and that once he finally started working on it, he found himself increasingly drawn into a local bicycle mystery that tore his attention away from his work—ostensibly the play he is “supposed” to be performing this month. He then also warns that everything, including that very introduction, is, to borrow a bowdlerized curse from the show, “bullsh!t.”
The real meat of the show consists of Daniel Kitson, or perhaps a character named Daniel Kitson, recounting, through a series of old-fashioned slides on a projector, how he became obsessed with the victim of a local bicycle accident, and how he, in the course of trying to figure out more about her, uncovered increasingly mysterious clues regarding a local bicycle society she seemed to belong to.
Kitson presents himself here as, in his own words, something like a TV detective—less in the sense of possessing amazing crime-solving capabilities, and more in the sense of being acerbic, impossible to work with, and not very fond of being in a room full of people. Though the show is structured like a play, Kitson leans on his experience as a comedian, and makes it clear that he is always peering through his thick-lensed glasses at his audience, ready with an improvised, dry, British-accented quip directed at any wayward yawns, or a distinctive laugh, or, notably, any furtively scribbling critics he might spot in the crowd.
For all his (or his character’s) abrasiveness, Kitson weaves an intensely affecting and sentimental story, and he’s pleasing to listen to. Were this story told at a party rather than on a stage, Kitson, scruffy disagreeableness and all, would likely have each partygoer hanging on his every word by the end of it. It’s also a testament to his power as a storyteller that he can sternly warn at the start of his show that “none of this is true” and still leave his audience, two hours later, tempted to believe his stories.
He’s correct in his assessment that those in for the most exhilarating ride are those “poor fools” who come along to the show knowing nothing about it or his oeuvre. But even those approaching this twisty path appropriately prepared are in for a delightful ride.
At Studio Theatre to Nov. 25. 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$25. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.