Theatre @ Boston Court’s Southern California Premiere of Fin Kennedy’s How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found has so much going for it, I wish I could say I enjoyed it more. Performances are superb, beginning with a tour de force star turn by Brad Culver. Direction by Nancy Keystone is imaginative and even inspired at times. Design elements, particularly John Zalewski’s striking sound design, are way up at the level of excellence theatergoers have come to expect @ Boston Court. The play was the first ever to win the prestigious John Whiting Award before being staged. British critics were ecstatic at the play’s World Premiere and I expect the Boston Court production will garner equal praise. And yet I failed to be engaged by its story or characters and in the end (and this is something I rarely say), I would have been happier accepting a different press invitation this past Sunday afternoon.
The warning signs that this wasn’t going to be my kind of play were there from its description as a “nightmarish journey to the edge of existence.” Reading this, anyone who knows me and my tastes would probably have told me to pass on How To Disappear. My gut feeling was that this wouldn’t be a “Steven Stanley Play.” Still, I hate to miss any production at Theatre @ Boston Court and decided to take a chance. My gut instinct was right.
How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found centers on a young Londoner named Charlie whose life is a mess. He’s stressed to the point of breakdown, tweaked on cocaine and who knows what else, and to make matters worse, his mother has just died, the evidence of which he carries inside an urn which never leaves his grasp. When he passes out at a London tube station, he comes to in the station’s Lost And Found, whose supervisor informs him is located six feet underground. Later, a pretty young doctor whom he meets responds to his “Who are you?” with “I’m a pathologist. Your body was retrieved from the Thames last night. You had no identification. I’ve been working all day to discover who you are.” Perhaps Charlie is in a worse jam than he would appear to be, bad as that already is.
How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found plays as a series of surreal scenes from Charlie’s life (or should that be afterlife?), and Theatre Of The Surreal is something I usually steer away from and probably should have here. Compelling as Culver’s work is as Charlie, and he is out-and-out brilliant in what must be one of the most exhausting roles of his or any actor’s career, I found it difficult to identify with, or even feel sympathy for this frantic, twitching, borderline psychotic wreck of a man, and when I don’t care about a character, my interest in his story fades quickly.
The buzzword “nightmarish” does indeed describe How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, and though I’ve loved just about every dark, complex, thought-provoking treat Theatre @ Boston Court has offered over the past few years, spending time in someone’s bad dream (or worse) is not something I particularly care for. It doesn’t help that How To Disappear is deliberately, even annoyingly cryptic, so much so that at the post-performance talkback, one of the cast members revealed that there were times when even the director didn’t quite know what was going on in Kennedy’s script.
Zalewski’s sound design and original music are so absolutely right for Kennedy’s angst & anxiety-ridden play that, for this reviewer at least, they make Charlie’s predicament even less appealing to sit through. Christopher Kuhl’s lighting design is stark, edgy and dramatic. Keystone’s abstract scenic design (all in shades of gray) is quite ingeniously conceived, and perfectly complemented by Ann Closs-Farley’s monochromatic costumes, Adam Flemming’s eye-catching video design, and Robyn Taylor’s props (with the exception of a Ralphs plastic shopping bag).
In addition to Culver’s stunning lead performance, Time Winters dazzles in a series of quirky roles and diverse British accents, with Valerie Spencer and Nick Mills both terrific in an equal number of cameos. Carolyn Ratteray makes for a lovely, sympathetic Sophie, the abovementioned pathologist. Kudos too to dialect coach Tracy Winters and her associate Tuffet Schmelzle for what sound like spot-on regional accents.
Nathan Singh is assistant director, Casey McGann production stage manager, Julia Flores casting director. Key art is by Christopher Komuro.
Last February I posted a list of criteria I use when deciding which shows to review of the eighty or so I get invited to each month. I wrote, “Anything too experimental, too dark, upsetting or depressing, too ‘fringey,’ is unlikely to make my calendar.” All of these adjectives describe How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, and while many will I’m certain love every experimental, dark, upsetting, depressing, fringey moment of it, if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to see something more to your (our) liking.
Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.
May 1, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger, Boston Court