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Further Than the Furthest Thing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Darkness. Nearly unremitting black, pierced only by the inky silhouette of an enormous rock formation and the man standing on it. There is light far in the distance; it's late night, or perhaps early morning. Your vision is obscured, intentionally, and the strange sounds that fill your ear are hardly deciphered before the next ones begin.

This scene, the one that starts the play, says it all. Further Than the Furthest Thing is an overwhelming expanse of dark with a light only near the very end of the tunnel.

The play that author Zinnie Harris has provided comes with apparently only the most noble of intentions. As her notes in the Playbill indicate, the play is based on the island of Tristan da Cunha, a tiny isolated island where boats from other inhabited areas are, at best, infrequent occurrences. Tristan da Cunha, like the unnamed island in Further Than the Furthest Thing, was ravaged by a volcano in the early 1960s, forcing its population to be relocated to Southampton.

It would be too easy to make jokes about the volcanic eruption part of the story being the first time there's heat onstage. Well, it would be if it weren't true. In the case of Further Than the Furthest Thing, the volcano makes its appearance only scant minutes before the end of the first act, and the ravaging of the island doesn't come a bit too soon.

Up to that point, the stage has been full of deceit, distrust, angst, fright, suspicion, and even a baby killing! Attempts at comedy - including the breaking of penguin eggs (apparently a valuable commodity) and a lengthy pantomime of factory life - pass more or less unnoticed between the spates of misery. And, afterward, there's still a full act to go!

Thankfully, the second act, while hardly much cheerier than the first, at least attempts to produce watchable drama from the story's dreary situation. Harris and her director, Neil Pepe, are even able to build up to some significant excitement as the act nears its end. It may be all shattered by an unnecessary coda of an ending, or a monologue of unwieldy length and questionable dramatic value (delivered with absolute sincerity by Jenny Sterlin, the evening's female lead), but it is present nonetheless.

The performers, who also include Jennifer Dundas, Dan Futterman, Peter Gerety, and Robert Hogan struggle to make the material work, but never seem to be having an easy time of. Set designer Loy Arcenas, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, costume designers Laura Bauer Bobby Tilley II, and (perhaps most importantly) dialect coach Stephen Gabis have likewise done all that should be expected to make a world out of the play.

But Harris's work, in populating that world with speech and life, is sadly deficient. Other problems aside, the reason the play is so unsatisfying is simple: you don't care about the characters enough. The nasty ways they behave toward themselves and each other does nothing to make the loss of their home at the end of the first act, or their struggles to regain it during the second, worthwhile. With that element not present, all the angst, all the strain, all the misplaced exposition, and all the overlong pseudo-poetic speeches mean nothing. So the play as a whole means nothing.

Harris's notes in the Playbill suggest she intended Further Than the Furthest Thing as a tribute to the people of Tristan da Cunha. A tribute of this nature, no one of any nationality needs.

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Manhattan Theatre Club
Further Than the Furthest Thing
Stage I - City Center
131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: CityTix at (212) 581-1212
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission