My apartment is bigger than the Blue Heron Arts Center’s studio theater. After cramming 30 people onto bleachers, scenic designer Donyale Werle subdivides the postage-stamp stage into four acting areas—a bedroom, an office, a subway car, and a bar. This scenic overcrowding was perfectly suited to The Ontological Detective, a mystery in which, while investigating a suicide, Detective Michael Luz teeters on the edge of insanity: The audience’s claustrophobia reflects Luz’s inability to escape his personal demons. Director Kenneth Heaton effectively intensifies the clutter by keeping the actors in nearly constant motion, further underscoring Luz’s internal dilemma.
Unfortunately, as the plot thickened, I more often found myself comparing the actors’ circumambulation to the play’s inability to transcend its self-inflicted philosophical burden. Luz and his parallel character, Skip, a hack photographer, are both interested in “ontology—what it means to be,” and whether thought creates being. However, other than defining ontology (repeatedly), neither character articulates a response to these issues. Sadly, merely including “ontological” in the title doth not make it so: Thematically, the piece feels more like Philosophy 101 than a provocative existential meditation.
Nuanced acting often compensates for the vague writing. Christopher Mattox as Luz and Romi Dias as his partner, Detective Robles, do admirable work balancing subtlety with urgency. Conversely, Charles Paul Holt’s Skip remains generically psychotic, complete with glazed eyes and perpetual grin. The mixture of advanced and two-dimensional acting only enhances the bewilderment as the plot proceeds to its unsatisfying conclusion, leaving the audience asking: If Luz’s boss knew Luz was on the edge, why didn’t he fire him? Would Robles really continue to work with a partner who thought she was his recently deceased wife? And how exactly did that twist ending work? I guess that’s the problem with ontology: There are always more questions than answers.