The pollen on the surface of the Eno River eddies and coils into mildly mesmerizing, intricate patterns these days as the stream glides past the base of Cox Mountain. It's a slowly animated version of the marbled cover pages found in ancient fine art books. My thoughts kept returning to it during the far too appropriately named Cape Disappointment.
Since most of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen's inexorably postmodern meditation on the lonesome, amoral and not-so-open roads of yesteryear takes place around or inside cars, a quartet of actors repeatedly trundle about the stage at Manbites Dog Theater in boxy, matte-black plywood vehicles—think primitive Smart coupe knockoffs for the Flintstone set.
The problem? They're anything but alone when they do, since patrons in this unorthodox production are urged to occupy an assortment of rolling office chairs in order to follow the action—literally—across the theater as it unfolds.
So now we know: The unsettling ambience of a lone late-night highway becomes something else when a gaggle of wheeled gawkers is always visible, inches away from the vehicles in question. Repeatedly, automotive actors crept gingerly into the flock of viewers, herding them around the room in aimless spirals like the turbid patterns on the Eno. Scenes dragged and transitions snagged as a result.
Unfortunately, such dilemmas form a metaphor for a show whose characters are also going nowhere fast. On director Jay O'Berski's murky highways, a repellant brother and sister (Ishai Buchbinder and Dana Marks) run out of gas on the way to pick up a senile aunt (the believably brittle Annie Zipper), while two manipulative, half-bright linoleum salesmen (Buchbinder and Jeffrey Moore) get manipulated themselves by a canny pair of hobos (played by Zipper and Marks).
Yes, the playwrights clearly want us to know how absurd—and fictive—they find the narrative of the road trip, and the temporary, bogus escape from the self it implies to them. With even less subtlety than in last season's Buddy Cop 2, potential destinations like Detroit (lionized at the start by Marks and Moore's booster rubes) and the invented town of Sisterville (praised in Megan Burchett's time-worn billboards) are branded as cynically overhyped or fraudulent mirages gone bust.
The exception to this calcified hoopla lies in the unsavory tale "The Pedophile and the Little Girl." To display its bona fides as a relentlessly nonjudgmental—and therefore cutting-edge—work, the playwrights essentialize the pair's long-term, apparently voluntary relationship in neutral, declarative statements like those found in preschool picture books: "The little girl takes the wheel. The pedophile carves a duck. The little girl sings a tune."
But even here, the flatness of the fantasies of the alleged pedophile (as we must call him, because, of course, he's never seen to act on that desire) finally is revealed as well. When a stated dream of his finally comes true (without any sexual or emotional apotheosis, naturally), a narrator primly, blankly concludes, "And that was that."
The central themes of Cape Disappointment rarely deviate from that over-quoted Buckaroo Banzai tagline, "No matter where you go, there you are," and the jaded takeaway from a vintage Tom Waits song, "Suckers always make mistakes when they're far away from home."
The artifice of theater is also sent up in an intermission that isn't, and a later, literal show-stopper in which Marks gets a fresh coat of makeup. It takes a few minutes. Nothing else happens as it does.
Though these disaffected tales occur on the cusp of the 1950s and '60s, the revelatory, road-going odysseys of the Beat Generation are nowhere to be seen. A host of unlikely pilgrimages sparked by the open road stretched from that era into the following decades. But in Cape Disappointment, it almost seems that the playwrights, 40 years too late to get invited to that party, felt compelled to create a disappointing world in which it never took place.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Road to nowhere."