The title might sound archaic, but its show's subject matter is as contemporary as they come. Grappling with emotional abandonment, loneliness, but no drugs or alcohol to speak of, Kate Robin's new play anon. does not immediately track with either a Shakespearean adverb or a present-day abbreviation. But the deeper you dig in this deceptively shallow offering at the Atlantic Theater Company's new Atlantic Stage 2, the more connections you find - and the fewer you'll wish you did.
Both meanings of the word become, for the four main characters Robin has hastily placed in 2007 New York City, the reason and the potential salvation for all manner of sexual transgressions. Adultery, pornography, even not being attracted to the person you're sleeping with can all be excused by rigorous psychological analysis and the proper 12-step program. In other words: Those who need to have everything anon (immediately) are destined for a very different kind of "anon" if they don't clean up their acts. But it's sadly ironic that Robin's principled avoidance of immediate gratification is what leads to anon. providing so little gratification of its own.
Rather than simply allowing the intertwining stories of thirtysomethings Trip and Allison (Remy Auberjonois and Michelle Federer) and late-middle-aged marrieds Rachelle and Bert (Caroline Aaron and Bill Buell) to unfold naturally, Robin divides their encounters into brief, teasing scenes separated by monologues from 10 different women describing their own sexual or romantic imbroglios. These monologues invariably seem to relate to what Trip, Allison, Rachelle, and Bert just experienced.
The first scene, for example, ends with confirmed Catholic Trip bedding "animal behaviorist" Allison after they've known each other for 10 minutes. (After all, you can only discuss someone else's gestalt for so long before you need to be a part of it.) After Gina (Kate Nowlin) appears to discuss her own flirtations with sin that led to her man Paul becoming a pillar of salt, Rachelle and Bert materialize to establish her body image issues, his inability to cope with losing his job, and the tattered remains of their once maybe-strong marriage. Soon, it's time to learn how Becky (Shannon Burkett) developed concerns about her breast size, before we drop in on Trip and Allison as they're about to have another steamy encounter.
It's not explained until later on exactly how these women fit into the story (they almost never participate in the action directly), so many of the play's early scenes ripple with ambiguity: Are these women here strictly to comment on the action, or will their own confessions add up to a powerful dramatic catharsis for the central quartet and for us at evening's end?
As it turns out, neither. The story ignites in the next scene, when Trip - who, it turns out, doesn't get too charged up about Allison when he sees her regularly - is diagnosed by Allison has having some severe sexual disorder that can only be cured by serious and immediate therapy. (The treasure trove of porn in his apartment and his cat named Pussy are among the "clues.") Small successes lead to larger failures as Bert's infidelities cause his marriage to Rachelle to dissolve, which soon impacts their son Trip's doings with Allison.
Once the point is made that Allison's courses in pet psychology didn't adequately prepare her for assessing the more complicated human heart (and that happens very early on in this two-and-a-half-hour show), there's nothing to do but sit back and watch everything self destruct. But those women's interjections even rob that of any excitement, forcing everything into a painfully slow burn that still hasn't turned everything to ashes by the time the play itself ends.
It doesn't help that many of the 10 satellite women - who include such distinctive performers as Susan Blackwell ([title of show]) and Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Well - display more vivid personalities in their moments onstage than the four leads do with roughly 50 times their stage time. Federer, however, creates a moderately compelling person: The way her natural spark increasingly dims over the course of the evening is a haunting representation of the effects of Allison's serial meddling on her own spirit. As Auberjonois and Aaron play victims of varying degrees of innocence, they can't engage us as much; Buell's few opportunities for arousing our sympathy are doused by the unrelentingly loathsome lout he's made Bert.
Chris Muller's scenic design is the clearest exception on view to Melissa Kievman's languid, unfocused direction: It's a stylish collection of modular units enabling the hiding and revealing of surprisingly detailed locales on the tiny Atlantic Stage 2 stage. These set pieces are dedicated to the proposition that moving from point A to point B to point C should be done as efficiently as possible. Kievman and Robin would do well to remember this themselves: The play's parting sentiment proves they're intelligent craftspeople who can recognize a wonderful curtain line and know how it should be delivered. What they need to learn is when it's crucial to unveil it an hour earlier. Or, as they used to say, anon.