New Rep's "On the Verge": Can We Trek?

Paula Langton, Christine Hamel, Adrianne Krstansky & Benjamin Evett
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
New Rep’s current production, “On the Verge”, may be the perfect presentation of the word “romp”. In this 1985 work by Eric Overmyer (better known as a television writer), the focus is on language as opposed to development of characters or plot. It’s the story of three female explorers (or “sister sojourners”, as they call themselves) in the late nineteenth century from “somewhere east of Australia and west of Peru” who set out in search of Terra Incognita in the Pacific, somehow becoming warped into 1955 and American pop culture. Previously escorted over glaciers and mountains, and through jungles, by men, now they are on their own, without any guides: no sherpas, no porters. With the momentous exhortation, “Let us trek”, they’re off and running, “whacking the bush” and observing numerous novelties such as “suburban charred meat festivals” and “moose mousse”, encountering countless alliterative anecdotal anachronisms, like incorrigible dirigibles and imaginative native images. Their wise and witty banter borders on the Stoppardian. They are fascinated by the mysterious interior (of the world both without and within). What they are about is wondrous wordplay. And as one of them says, “I have seen the future, and it is slang”.

This trio of divas includes Mary Baltimore (Paula Langton), Fanny Cranberry (Adrianne Krstansky ) and Alexandra Cafuffle (Christine Hamel). Mary is the oldest, a spinster who is preoccupied with mating rituals, “anthropological smut”. Fanny, the only one who is married, as well as conservative, disapproves of many “immoral” things, such as women wearing trousers. Alexandra (whose last name means a commotion), the youngest, tends to malapropisms and loves novelty, especially new words. Each engages in “osmosing”, that is, gathering information from the future. Along the way they meet seven characters ranging from Alphonse (with a German accent, and not what he at first seems), to a Yeti (in a brief mute walk-on with much growling and roaring), a Gorge Troll (a Brando-like beatnik who writes poetry), Mr. Coffee (the angel of death), Gus (a teenage ball player in a place called Peligrosa who directs ladies to Nicky’s Bar & Grill) and finally Nicky Paradise (a lounge lizard who owns a resort for swingers). Fanny also dreams of Grover (her shy banking husband). All three actresses are mesmerizing, as are all seven actors (that is, all played by the incomparably versatile Benjamin Evett).

One will find no dramatic resolution of conflict here, but mere frivolity and fantasy. If you love this sort of wordplay, you’ll be delighted despite the monochromatic optimism. What evil there is in the world, in the end, is there “to thicken the plot”. Like three Alices in Wonderland, they take us on an imaginative journey accompanied by manners and machetes, always with a pleasantly pithy point. As Mary says, “We’re not short on pith”. It doesn’t have much in the way of earthshaking messages, except some gleefully subversive feminism. Coherent drama it’s not; it‘s less a play than it is a play on words, and it could use some trimming, especially in the second act. One cut is already evident in the absence of the character of Madame Nhu (a purveyor of fortune cookie wisdom, most likely cut since it was criticized in earlier productions for its politically incorrectness for Asian Americans). Still, the work is truly funny, as ably directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa. The technical crew are all firmly on board, from the wonderfully wacky Scenic Design by Christina Todesco (mismatched chairs and lots of industrial strength bubble wrap), to the amusing Costume Design by Nancy Leary, to the complicated Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, and subtle Sound Design by David Remedios.

To love this play you have to appreciate the ladies’ “nostalgia for the future”, and marvel along with them at the “residue from the future”, such as Cool Whip. The last scene of the play is titled “The Geography of Yearning”, as Mary warns that “theatre threatens to disintegrate into anthropological kinship studies”. As the playwright states elsewhere, paraphrasing the French surrealistic author André Breton, “perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights.” Go along for the ride and you’ll be transported. Bring too much baggage to this play (“you must carry what you collect”) and you may not enjoy it at all. For those theatregoers with a love of language, as the ladies would have put it, “Via con Dios“; you’ll have a fabulous time in both senses of the term. In the final words of these intrepid pioneers, “that’s not annoying at all."

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