'The Underlying Chris': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Hannah Cabell and Howard Overshown in 'The Underlying Chris'
Certainly original, but less than the sum of its many parts.
12/15/2019

The latest play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno, author of 'Thom Pain (based on nothing),' chronicles a life from infancy to death in unconventional fashion.

Life is filled with chance encounters that can permanently alter our circumstances. Identities are mutable, constantly in flux and subject to random events. These seem to be the main notions of the latest puzzler of a play by Will Eno, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Second Stage. Eno, a writer whose endless delight in messing with our perceptions has been made evident in such works as Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Realistic Joneses and Wakey, Wakey, has delivered yet another existentially tinged piece that, like its predecessors, will likely prove divisive. Some will revel in the underlying themes of The Underlying Chris, while others will no doubt be put off by its purposeful confusions. Let the fighting commence.

To his credit, the playwright makes his highfalutin intentions clear from the outset. The work begins with an introduction by a young girl, clad in a men's suit, solemnly informing us that the subject of the play we're about to see is "life on Earth."

"I hope everything is familiar enough to be followable, but foreign enough to be fun," she says, before asking, "Who's up for some meaning?"

It's a daunting question, although what ensues indeed turns out to be familiar enough to be followable but foreign enough to be fun, at least up to a point. The play presents the story of a life, a relatively ordinary one, from infancy to death. The conceit is that the title character changes from one scene to the next. As portrayed by nearly every person in the 11-member ensemble, the character alters in age, gender and race in seemingly random fashion, with his/her names including Christopher, Christine, Kris, Kristin, Topher, Krista, Christoph, Kit, Christiana and Khris. It sometimes takes a little while to figure out the intended connections. 

The character's profession changes drastically as well, ranging from doctor to veterinarian to therapist to actor. But certain traits remain the same, such as a troubled childhood that included the loss of both parents and a series of foster homes; a background in sports, including swimming, diving and tennis; and back pain that persists from childhood to old age.

Composed of a series of short blackout scenes, The Underlying Chris mainly traffics in relatively banal scenarios, such as a couple randomly meeting in a café, a minor sports injury that lands a teenager in the hospital, and an elderly man failing his eye test at the DMV. It's all meant to project the ordinariness of life as lived by an everyman (and everywoman).

As you might imagine, a little of this goes a long way. Despite its profusion of short, snappy scenes and concise 85-minute running time, the play tends to drag, much in the way that days tend to feel longer the older one gets. Once you get the central idea, the novelty starts to wear thin, especially since none of the characters or incidents is particularly compelling and there's nothing to grab onto emotionally.

There are some fun moments along the way, since the playwright thankfully keeps things relatively lighthearted considering his cosmic themes. There's an amusing sight gag involving a coffee house employee who keeps removing things, and a wisecracking doctor who delivers enough pithy one-liners to fuel a sitcom episode. The ensemble handles their multiple roles with considerable skill (although to single out any of them would almost seem contrary to the production's ethos).

But the play is never as profound as it seems to think it is, and the dialogue too often blatantly on-the-nose, as when the old man's driver's license is confiscated by the DMV clerk and he laments, "I'm just starting to figure out who I am and they take away my identification."

The staging by Kenny Leon (American Son, A Raisin in the Sun) doesn't help matters, providing little in the way of stylistic flair that might have made the proceedings pop. It's all very efficient, effortlessly blending from one scene to another (Arnulfo Maldonado's endlessly versatile sets make a major contribution), but everything is presented in such muted fashion that the overall effect feels flattened. If the playwright's intention was to remind us of the banality of life, he's succeeded all too well.

Venue: Tony Kiser Theater, New York
Cast: Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell, Michael Countryman, Nicholas Hutchinson, Lenne Klingaman, Lizbeth Mackay, Howard Overshown, Isabella Russo, Nidra Sous Le Terre, Charles Turner, Luis Vega
Playwright: Will Eno
Director: Kenny Leon
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by Second Stage Theatre