In his 2014 comedy “The Open House,” Will Eno offered up a real coup de theatre when he had a bickering family slowly replaced on stage by characters interested in buying their house. As one family member after another left the house to go on an errand, the actor playing that role would soon reappear as a potential house buyer, real estate agent or contractor.
Eno’s new play, “The Underlying Chris,” opened Thursday at Second Stage, and the playwright is back in an inventive mode. Chris is a character we follow for 80-plus years, from the crib to his or her grave. Yes, the many actors playing Chris at various stages of life alternate between being male or female; black, white or brown. The character (sometimes named Kit, Krista, Christine, etc.) does not change sexual orientation. Chris is a hard-wired heterosexual, and in one short vignette after another (the play runs 85 minutes), the character undergoes the typical life experiences of physical injuries, parental deaths, marriage, child birth, divorce and decrepitude.
In his 2017 play “Wakey, Wakey,” Eno revealed that it’s the little things that make life endurable. He also explores that Hallmark greeting-card thesis in “The Underlying Chris,” and adds to it with many speeches about the miracle of life. Did you know that the blood vessels in one human body can wrap around the world two and a half times? One of Eno’s characters advises us not to attempt this feat.
Eno’s ability to subvert our expectations through language is on full display in one early scene: It’s a meet-cute at a café where the medical student Chris (Luis Vega) and a young veterinarian (Hannah Cabell, bringing a quirky grace to several characters) keep misinterpreting each other’s remarks until finally they go off on a date. The wordplay continually refreshes a scene we’ve seen in dozens of movies and other plays.
There are glimmers of this wit throughout the play, but the underlying Chris — that emotional and physical core that links this individual to every other human being — keeps getting in the way of any dramatic payoff. Chris is a generic character, one who is everybody and therefore nobody.
All the big moments in Chris’s life happen offstage: the accidents, the deaths, the break-ups, the reconciliations. Eno leaves us instead with the coping and the survival, and after a few scenes, we jump ahead of the story. Unfortunately, we are never surprised.
It’s the core problem with this “La Ronde” format, and Kenny Leon’s direction never solves it. Instead, he emphasizes the rigid structure rather than loosening it up. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design delivers several distinctive locales, each one divided by a blackout (lighting by Dede Ayite) and/or a lowered curtain. It’s as if Leon and his designers have set up a metronome on stage to give each scene the same rhythm, the same dramatic weight. Playing the older Chris, the actors Denise Burse, Lizbeth MacKay and Charles Turner all manage to bring real gravitas to their respective portrayals.
Life is a miracle. It’s worth living. But sometimes it’s not worth watching.