In on It

Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 9

In a darkened theater, a spotlight hits a crumpled gray jacket, the only object on stage. After a moment, strains from Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena slowly build from the speakers. As the music increases in intensity, actor Matthew Hager walks in, picks up the garment and puts it on. The rumples and creases in the flimsy fabric smooth out as the coat takes on and outlines the form and substance of a man.

Since Daniel MacIvor’s thought-provoking 2001 drama goes “meta” more than once during the evening, it’s interesting that this opening image isn’t just a metaphor for much of what follows in the script. It’s also fairly handy in summing up the work’s critical reception to date: In dwelling on the three-level puzzle that gives the piece its framework, critics arguably have over-focused on the coat, as it were, while paying inadequate attention to the human contents therein.

Hager’s character, listed in our playbill only as “This One,” is himself living a shell of a lifeas his companion, Gregor McElvogue’s “That One,” keeps none-too-subtly pointing out. We first meet the couple while they’re working through problematic scenes of a play Hager’s character has written. But as the brittleness in This One’s melodramatic script begins to evince itself in the playwright’s life off stage, we soon realize McElvogue’s character isn’t merely serving up real-time dramaturgy in a series of pointed questions that challenge the premises of his partner’s play. Instead, he’s actually asking him, “How can you go on living this way?”

Under Dana Marks’ direction, the aesthetic rigidity of Hagar’s character as an artist is clearly a function of his interpersonal inflexibility. In this relationship, his open stance as a gay man is rendered all but irrelevant since most of his emotions remain so firmly closeted.

Which leaves McElvogue’s character the unpleasant task of warming This One’s chill, and attempting to dislodge him from the reinforced shell of brittle fatalism and profound denial that shields any true emotional response. It won’t be easy.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of MacIvor’s scriptand the performances in this productionis the degree to which they show two people with significant differences in personality trying to work out a relationship with one another.

For This One and That One are well past initial infatuation by the time we meet them. They juggle the substantive conflicts in their views on life, each other and their relationship with all of the other needs: a postponed trip to the market and then the pharmacist, housecleaning, a dinner with friends and night at the theater that have to be rescheduled. In short, they work on it. And we see how far they get, and how far they don’t, in the course of MacIvor’s artistic, intellectual and emotional workout.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Life in pink.”