What’s the cure for metaphysical malaise? In each of the five short plays that make up Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity, someone wants to know. Ordinary folks confess their private thoughts, posing questions about failure, loss, and catastrophe. But they don’t find many answers. Billed as a piece about “people like you, facing lives like yours,” Oh, the Humanity evokes the loneliness some of us might feel when isolated in the glow of computer screens, or the helplessness induced by watching televised cataclysms.
Eno’s writing glides artfully (and humorously) between external circumstances and inner thoughts in every segment. (For this crafting alone, the monologues are destined to become audition and acting-class favorites.) A coach gives a postseason press conference to own up to his failures; his thoughts wander from forfeited games to self-doubt and despair. A man and woman pour out their lonely hearts online, not really connecting; each confesses to spiritual confusion and emptiness. An airline spokeswoman publicly accounts for a catastrophe, struggling to spin existential optimism out of tragedy.
By clustering these dramatic snapshots—and presenting the evening as mostly a two-hander (with Marisa Tomei and Brian Hutchison in multiple roles)—Eno shows common threads running through adjacent lives and minds. His psychic portraits are frequently beautiful and reliably intelligent. At their best, they shine with grace. Jim Simpson’s superb direction anchors each scenario in a sturdy tableau, the speakers often addressing the audience directly. This clears space for Eno’s inventive wordplay. The most haunting of the five shorts—called The Bully Composition—makes the strongest use of stage configuration. Two photographers describe an old war photo, inhabiting the thoughts of steely soldiers, then turn their antique camera on the spectators to record this shared moment of reflection. Simpson puts the audience under the bright, warm camera lights, heightening our self-awareness for one fleeting instant. It yields a gorgeous scene, densely layered and building on live presence as only theater can.
Hutchison gives Eno’s disoriented male characters many deeply moving vulnerabilities. His contemporary inflections and rhythms drive the playwright’s most poetic utterances along at the true speed of thought: It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in recent seasons. In the women’s roles, Tomei appears full of poise but is less at ease with Eno’s eccentric rhythms, often taking self-conscious pauses.
Grouping these short works together occasionally reveals some limitations in Eno’s writing. Characters mostly share the same voice and tone. The metaphors change, but the ontological questions don’t vary. And despite Eno’s fresh and precise poetic language, there’s sometimes a softness at his thematic core. (In the final scene, for instance, a couple wonders if they are heading to a christening or a funeral, eventually reassuring each other with outstretched hands. To me, that sentiment-—and juxtaposition of death with birth—feels a little easy amid the evening’s more mysterious metaphysics.) But these foibles might just be by-products of Eno’s powerful creative engine. For anyone within hearing distance, his five short “exclamations” reverberate far and wide.