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Thinking Inside the Box

Theater Review: The Next State


Published November 15, 2006 at 2:38 p.m.

Many theatergoers expect good plays to provoke questions that resonate long after the curtain has fallen. It's the rare work that features characters racked with questions about why they're gathered in the first place. That's the case in local playwright-director-actor Seth Jarvis' new work, The Next State, currently running at the FlynnSpace in Burlington.

For the past couple of years, Jarvis has channeled his creative energies into original plays. He wrote and directed the absurdist comedy The Once and Future Ubu, which went up in winter 2005 and will be mounted again locally in December ( ). Earlier this fall, he directed Jim Lantz's The Bus, which drew praise and sold-out houses. The Next State is one of Jarvis' own scripts, which he's also directing. The play mixes the absurd and the topical in a way that none of his earlier projects has. The results are also mixed - provocative and bizarrely comical, but a bit perplexing.

For roughly 20 minutes before the house lights dim for the show, a tuxedo-clad character, his bow tie and mood well loosened, sits onstage at a white, cube-shaped desk. Known only as "Man #1" and played by Ryan Ober, the character mutters to himself, chuckles at some private joke and generally acts like a party guest in his cups. Three more cube-shaped tables and a circular one dominate the otherwise bare stage. A door opens in the center of a whitewashed backdrop, blank save for a square drawn behind each cube. Designed by local artist Dostie, the stage's cold, sterile ambience suggests a hybrid between an interrogation room and a game-show set.

The action of The Next State fits that setting. Man #1 is joined by Man #2, played by Jason Cooley, and Woman #1, played by Tracey Girdich - two ordinary-looking characters who appear to have been plucked from average middle-class lives. For a while, the three act more or less indifferently toward one another, spurning interaction - even though no one seems to know why he or she is there. When Kim Jordan's Woman #2 enters, the dynamics shift as she attempts to engage the others. Although her efforts are largely in vain, the more crowded the room becomes, the more determined Ober's Man #1 becomes to figure out just what's going on.

So little happens in the room - and in this play - that every new entrance and exit, and every new scrap of information, carries dramatic weight. Early on, Man #1 reports having taken a trip to the bathroom and discovered another door - locked. This prompts a brief discussion of how many doors define the strange environment: the bathroom door, the locked door, the door leading out of the building and the door to the characters' cell, if that's what it is.

In The Next State, this muted moment amounts to a plot turn. So does Woman #1's remark that the streets have been closed off, and the later disclosure from Woman #3, played by Rebecca White, that the streets have disappeared.

The most dramatic entrances and exits are those of the Pill Man, played by Joseph O. Grabon, who steps in periodically to administer pills to the occupants. Some characters take their meds willingly, even eagerly. Man #1 shows displeasure with the procedure, but he goes along. While it's unclear whether the characters will suffer consequences if they refuse the pill, they seem to agree that they are not at liberty to resist their circumstances. They question those circumstances, though, and the questions coalesce into the play's central conflict.

The absurdity of The Next State smacks of allegory, a suspicion further fueled by the title. Is it a reference to our political culture? A warning about society's penchant for pill-sized solutions to certain mental "states"? A dig at New Hampshire? Making such connections between the fictional world of the play and its possible real-world referents is an interpretive act, one better left to audiences than undertaken by reviewers. But even if the intended symbolic meaning of the play isn't explicit on stage, it offers parallels to other literary works that are hard to miss. They range from Franz Kafka's novel The Trial to Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot to the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club. (Jarvis directed a local stage adaptation of the film in 2005.) All these works feature characters removed, in one way or another, from their natural habitats and confronted with the question of what they should do next.

But those other works all offer an explanation, however oblique, of how the characters got into their predicament or what fate may befall them if they don't take appropriate action. This isn't true of The Next State, where we encounter the characters already stuck in the middle of a rhetorical pipeline that empties into a subtly implied chaotic abyss. Because we don't get to see them enter this tunnel, we know nothing about who they are and whether their fates should arouse sympathy, outrage or even interest. This open-endedness is effective early in the play, piquing our curiosity. Midway through the production, however, when no answers have yet emerged, the play loses momentum. When Man #1 asks, "Do you know what's going on here?" he may be echoing audience members' thoughts about the play itself.

The Next State's disorienting effects are offset by a generally strong cast. Ober carries the heaviest burden in this cryptic tale. He's like McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the madman who incites the others to rebel - except that his only leadership quality is a persistent booze-addled crankiness. Ober plays the part skillfully. He spares us the tedium of a too-campy stage drunk - the only thing more tedious than a real drunk - and channels his semi-inebriation into comical moments. His is the voice that rails most loudly for answers, creating amusing contrasts with the other characters, who display their own notable quirks.

Cooley's Man #2 starts out taciturn to the point of muteness, but when he speaks, it's often to contribute something darkly humorous to the conversation. His pantomimed story involving a drinking fountain, masturbation and convulsive retching is one of the play's most memorable moments.

Jordan's Woman #2 is a paragon of politeness in a world where the rules of civilized conduct may no longer apply. She draws laughs for the seamlessness of her refined persona, complete with Shakespeare references and Junior League tea-party comportment. Girdich's and White's characters are less prone to oddball behavior, although Woman #1 cuts through some of the nonsense around her with a palpable edge.

The relative diversity of the cast adds a degree of poignancy to The Next State, implying that the situation the characters face is one that could befall anyone. That the cause and effect of this situation remain so ambiguous makes the play ultimately a set of questions. Our search for a logical explanation of what's happening onstage yields to reflection on the illogic all around us, inspired by what we're seeing. As a character answers when asked how he arrived at the room, "It's where the signs led." So, somewhere between this state - of being, of mind - and The Next State hovers the question of why we read the signs the way we do.