Spend time on Bedford Avenue, Smith Street, or some other bedroom community for young and restless Manhattan commuters, and you may hear tell of the “quarter-life crisis,” a syndrome common among mid-to-late-twentysomething urbanites. (High-risk subgroups include moonlighting artists and musicians, creators of recently defunct Web sites, and anyone remotely involved in publishing.) Onset generally occurs several years after college graduation, when the future’s dizzying spectrum of possibilities begins narrowing into a few well-trodden off-ramps, and lowered expectations take root as both pragmatic coping mechanism and slouching signpost of defeat. Among the telltale symptoms: professional disenchantment, romantic hopelessness, tantric panic, and compulsive sarcasm. The Onion, ever astute, recently provided a suitably formidable German term for this malady’s potential source: Fuerchtenünabwendbarfreundlich, or the dread of something inevitable yet benign—namely, the rest of your life.
Melissa James Gibson’s brisk, unblinkingly deadpan [sic] is a quarter-life crisis center, housing three patients who rent adjacent, closet-size apartments—lending their building an arrested dorm ambience. They’re forever wandering into their shared hallway in furtive search of each other, as if to put off writing a pesky term paper. Frank (downtown luminary James Urbaniak) is a witty deadbeat who has recently decided to parlay his predilection for tongue twisters into a vocation as an auctioneer. Moody, sad-sack composer Theo (Dominic Fumusa), still mourning the mysterious disappearance of his wife, struggles to make headway on his current project: the melody to the theme-park ride “Thrill-O-Rama.” (The minor-key, penny-dreadful clanking of his attempts accompanies each blackout.) He also nurses a rapidly intensifying crush on flighty, indifferent Babette (Christina Kirk), a chronically broke literary aspirant who busies herself compiling a book of what she calls “modern-era outbursts—seminal outbursts.”
Connected by a mutual friend—the unseen but much-discussed Larry—and bonded by mutual animosity toward their landlord, the threesome share a fondness for punny interplay and impromptu word games. (Frank: “What rhymes with ‘letter of eviction’?”) Something of an improvised family, they seem as bickersomely codependent as an old married couple. A floor below, an actual marriage is in its death throes—a disintegration that Babette seems especially attuned to. She’ll often break off reciting her latest seminal outburst (a memorable entry involves toilet-mouthed medieval monks) or halt a typically one-sided phone conversation to listen in on the anguished murmurs drifting upward through the thin floorboards. Louisa Thompson’s expertly economical set stacks the stage vertically: Frank, Theo, and Babette (I guess the Times would call them an “urban tribe”) stand above, trading fusillade quips and occasionally turning to the audience for expository addresses; under them, the figures but not the faces of the unnamed man and woman (Trevor A. Williams and Jennifer Morris) are visible, their helplessly petty exchanges audible but muffled. This split suggests the flip-side perils of city sickness: the rudderless, faintly embarrassed bewilderment that often accompanies singledom versus the terrifying free-fall of a partnership that implodes.
The title of Gibson’s play is never fully accounted for, though it variously connotes existential illness, blindsiding attack (the characters’ ruthless honesty with each other is equal parts tough-love candor and projectile cruelty), and some error that is recognized but allowed to stand, for the sake of an accurate record. [sic] is accordingly a bittersweet, frequently hilarious catalog of mistakes, regrets, opportunities missed or botched. Daniel Aukin directs his cast toward locating the confusion and longing buried under their characters’ ironic armor: Babette is a narcissistic chatterbox whom Kirk manages to invest with a plaintive interior life; Frank’s tireless banter begins to read, in Urbaniak’s perfectly timed performance, as a fear of silent solitude (one further assuaged by the kitschy auctioneering cassettes he plays over and over again). Writer and director alike are not enamored of this group’s withering cleverness so much as empathic toward the ineffable melancholia that all those quotation marks and whiplash one-liners try to hide. Gibson’s play is dry-eyed, tough-minded, resolutely absurdist, and yet nowhere near cynical. Its final words are “Bless you.”
Speaking in Tongues also begins on a divided stage, with mirror-image seductions in progress and in stereo: Leon and Jane (Kevin Anderson and Karen Allen) jump in bed, Pete and Sonja (Michel R. Gill and Margaret Colin) get cold feet, and everyone trudges home, in time for the audience to discover that they’ve all just unwittingly switched partners.
Written by Andrew Bovell, screenplay coauthor of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, the happenstance-addled play begins as marital autopsy and ends, rather puzzlingly, as convoluted thriller (with each player assuming two or more roles). But both in the bedroom and the police station, coincidence and chance encounter govern supreme—as do seminal outbursts that [sic]‘s Babette might like to index. Total strangers Leon and Pete strike up a conversation in a pub and aren’t even wasted before they go wildly confessional. Soon after, Jane and Sonja meet in another watering hole and duly follow the same pattern. The loaded but realistically banal conversations clash with the play’s overtly schematic architecture; each plot turn, every crucial divulgence, transpires through wantonly contrived procedurals: lengthy answering-machine messages, hostile shrink sessions, impromptu barroom support groups. A stranger is just an enemy you haven’t met, and all the lonely people don’t belong.
Speaking in Tongues does offer flashes of inflammatory insight—like John Patrick Shanley’s Where’s My Money?, it posits that miserable husbands and wives often stay together simply via resentful defiance of the other’s cellar-dwelling expectations. Richard Hoover’s sparse sets emanate a numbing department-store chill, while Brian MacDevitt’s lighting evokes a perpetual nighttime of the soul. Slump-shouldered Anderson and brittle, defensive Colin add nuanced pathos to their thinly drawn outlines of early-middle-aged disillusionment, but Allen and Gill reduce their characters to an exhausting flurry of gesticulations. Indeed, the relentless game of connect-the-dots grows befogging well before Speaking in Tongues pulls a post-intermission quick change, and it’s doubly frustrating that a play so obsessed with tying together disparate threads would leave so many of them hanging.