Hippocrates, the famed Greek physician, was the first person to diagnose hysteria, a condition he attributed to the wandering of the womb. More recently, this physiological problem became a psychological one, characterized by dissociative states. And now it has become a theatrical condition in Hysteria, created by the London company Inspector Sands and staged at Brits Off Broadway.
The piece arrives with an impressive pedigree of Edinburgh Fringe awards and rave reviews. While no one would argue against the talent of its writer-performers (Lucinka Eisler, Ben Lewis, and Giulia Innocenti), it’s difficult to understand why. Clocking in at just under an hour, Hysteria is an existentialist version of the bad-date play, wispier than the linen napkins the waiter (Eisler) lays the table with.
The show begins as this waiter ritually counts all of her body parts. It seems one of her teeth, like Hippocrates’ uteri, has strayed. Locating it in the base of her neck, and refastening it to her jaw, she then moves to the restaurant where a man and a woman, co-workers at a shady place called Zycotron, are having a rendezvous.
As the pair chat awkwardly and the waiter mimes popping champagne corks, a voiceover announcing climate disasters sometimes intones. Or seductive music plays and the woman poses lasciviously with a feather boa and a banana. Or the man steps away from the table and lectures about his research into “culture-bound syndromes,” a category that includes hysteria. These elements are all agreeable, but even taken together, they simply aren’t substantial enough to compose an evening of theater. Perhaps 59E59 should have made a full night of it and presented Inspector Sands’s other short play, If That’s All There Is, which runs in repertory with it, just after. Over the years, remedies for hysteria have included pregnancy, orgasm, and hypnosis. In this case, I’d prescribe a double bill.