This winter’s flu season began early and has proved especially harsh. The annual vaccine did not include protection against this year’s viral strain. More than 36,000 Americans are expected to die as a result. Playwright Will Eno’s The Flu Season will most likely not kill anyone. Indeed, the only death within the plot dissolves in a rush of metatheatrics. But like the 2004 flu, Eno’s playwriting is of a potent strain—tough to anticipate, difficult to resist. It teeters uncomfortably, if intentionally, between the ironic and the sentimental, the clinical and the lyrical. Fascinatingly, you often don’t know what to feel, or if you ought to be feeling anything at all.
The play vaults between a bleak amour at a psychiatric hospital and the attempts of two characters, named Prologue and Epilogue, to narrate both the plot and the circumstances of its composition. It’s rather like a Beckettian version of Adaptation. Prologue (Matthew Lawler) beams complacently, inviting the audience to The Snow Romance, “a chronicle of love and no love, of interiors and exteriors, of weather, change, entry-level psychology, and time.” Epilogue (David Fitzgerald), a more skeptical figure, corrects him. “Right. About the title, the play is now called The Flu Season. A lot of downtime has gone by since the first draft was written. . . . The new title stands for the fatigue, for all the sick-days wasted in coming up with a title at all. The Flu Season. I don’t know. Could use some work.”
The play proper begins as a doctor and nurse perform intake interviews. Everyone seems fairly aware that they are onstage. When the nurse begins the scene, “I think that would be fine,” suggesting they are reaching the end of the chat, the woman patient asks, “What would? No one said anything. You’re just going to start talking to me, totally out of the blue?” Eno seems to want us to take an interest in these characters without ever forgetting that they are characters.
The production, directed by Hal Brooks, doesn’t always maintain this balance. Though the scenes are nicely choreographed, Brooks has apparently charged Andrew Benator and Roxanna Hope, as the man and woman, to play their roles as though they were not only batty but vaguely subnormal as well. Elizabeth Sherman and Scott Bowman, as the nurse and doctor, strive for caricature. This results in plenty of laughs, but undermines our identification with the characters, which the script at times seems to request. The metatheatricality might jar more, the satire might cut deeper, were some emotional engagement allowed. At the end, Epilogue instructs us, “There was never any woman, never any nurse, nor doctor, nor certainly any man. Isn’t that sad? . . . There was no toy airplane. It was a pile of words. Isn’t that sad?” Yes, but it might have been much more so.