Walk into Gary Winter’s Cooler—now playing at the Chocolate Factory in a production directed by Dylan McCullough—and you’re hit with an icy blast of Bush-era despair, cryogenically preserved. From a more lucid play, the reminder could be salutary—we’re only a year into Obamatimes, and many of the old griefs linger. But Winter ultimately shuts spectators out, leaving us peering through thickets of idiosyncratic symbols at yet another dystopia.
The enormous titular refrigerator once transported dead soldiers home from a vicious war in an unspecified desert country. Now, it’s the hermetic retreat of a motley crew hiding from a hostile world. Ivan (Crystal Finn)—whose name belies her gender—wiles away the hours composing Slavic-sounding ditties on bleak existential themes. Pearl (Jocelyn Kuritsky) dresses up as the young Cher; Andrea (Havilah Brewster) rhapsodizes her absent father. Only Jack (Michael Tisdale)—a war hero and former torture victim turned zookeeper—manages to regularly leave the bunker.
Bundled up in thrift-store duds, the outcasts spout eddying streams of consciousness: waxing philosophical, reading aloud from the dictionary, indulging in whimsical wordplay and literary allusion (a Chekhov reference prompts the refrain “to Moscow!”).
Washed by stuttering fluorescent tubes, the basement auditorium’s concrete walls eloquently evoke the play’s chilly setting. The committed cast struggles to endow Winter’s fussy verbiage with emotional force, and McCullough arranges some striking sequences—a rhino-themed dancebreak delights—but they’re hamstrung by the text’s abstruseness.
The tough thing about allegory is that we first need a baseline of legibility before attaching larger meanings to staged events. But like the reclusive characters that populate it, Winter’s play is pathologically private, filled with icons impenetrable to all but himself. Beyond a general distaste for the lamentable aspects of the last decade, we can’t fully share his rage because we can’t really decipher it. Which leaves the play—like that frost-encrusted something at the back of the freezer—past its date.