By: David Rabe
At: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: TheGiftTheatre.org; $35-$50. Runs through: Dec. 9
Cosmologies, now in its world-premiere production at The Gift Theatre, is a confounding crash course in absurdist existentialism according to playwright David Rabe.
After a violent incident in a seedy hotel, teenager Eric ( Kenny Mihlfried ) must confront the mysteries of the universe with Richard ( James D. Farruggio ) and Teddy ( Darci Nalepa ), who may or may not be a pimp and a prostitute from the hotel, or who may or may not be his parents.
Director Michael Patrick Thornton is given a lot of material to work with by Rabe. One might claim it is too much material. Rabe's unfolding of an otherworldly or interdimensional scenario would lose momentum entirely were it not for Thornton's energetic staging of Eric's philosophic discursions on the nature of reality and love. Thornton shuttles actors all over the vertically epic Gift space, giving their attempts to gain understanding from one another an active and concrete project. He draws particularly physical performances from Farruggio, as a hard-hitting, space-devouring bully, and John Kelly Connolly, who plays a convict that intervenes in Eric's musings unexpectedly. There is less interest in Nalepa's use of space, and that may be partly Thornton's choice, and partly the fault of Rabe, who gives her two identities to play despairing whore and adoring mother with little opportunity to control the stage, or have much of a say in the confusing goings-on.
Overall, Rabe's purpose is unclear. There are plenty of references to characters mistaking one another for other figures, but there is never a sense of stakes within those mistakes or recognitions. The audience does not understand what it is being primed for on a plot level, and that means there is little to make viewers care about Eric's philosophizing. Likely, Rabe does not, but by eschewing choice and consequence for long-winded discussions and obfuscation for obfuscation's sake, he creates an impenetrable play with an impenetrable purpose for his audience.
Scenic co-designers Courtney O'Neill and Angela McIlvain create a sold sense of place in the otherworldly realm, and Charles Cooper's lights set the changing mood and time of that space expertly. Izumi Inaba's costumes feel old-fashioned in a way that fits both the real world and this alternate space. While Rabe may not provide an accessible story, the director, actors, and design team do their best to make his dialogue concrete, and the impact of his ideas specific.