The dramatic device of performing an entire play in reverse chronological order is not a new one. It was used in the 1934 Kaufman and Hart play Merrily We Roll Along, and the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical based on it, as well as, perhaps most famously, Harold Pinter's play Betrayal. In examination of any work that plays with conventional notions of time this way, one question must be answered: Is the play more effective because of its use?
In the case of Jeremy Dobrish's new play Eight Days (Backwards) at the Vineyard Theatre, the answer is no, as the gimmick feels, from beginning to end, like the play's entire reason for being. But though the story and characterization are so thin that they require the reverse chronology to give them what little substance they have, its pieces are solidly written, diverting, and even entertaining.
While Betrayal built upon earlier (later) scenes through irony and careful plotting, Eight Days (Backwards) generally eschews such intensity in terms of both character and plot. Most 100-minute plays with thirteen characters would find difficulty in distributing depth and growth evenly; with the added of weight of needing to establish and carry through its unique storytelling device, the characters in Eight Days (Backwards) feel particularly diluted. Its story does as well, inching along slowly, scenes growing out of minor, throwaway threads only to give birth to much the same.
For example, a few lines in an otherwise unrelated telephone conversation in the first scene mention a woman who had to miss her English lesson. The second scene finds that woman in the arms (and bed) of her employer the day earlier. They play out their drama, and a phone call from his office prompts the third scene, about his work. A character in that scene inspires the fourth scene, and so on for a total of eight days (one full week).
Each character is in the midst of some sort of relationship crisis, major or minor, but there are few other similarities between them. Dobrish tries to be even-handed, generally establishing both halves of the relationships he depicts, and even though six of the show's seven actors double roles, it's always clear who everyone is (thank costume designer Michael Krass for that), where they are (courtesy of Mark Wendland's striking set design) and when everything is happening (thank director Mark Brokaw for that, and the slick, quick-moving pacing of the show).
But the why is another question altogether, and questions about the necessity of the chronology remain unavoidable; the foundations Dobrish establishes in the earlier scenes are used to build houses of cards, not buildings. Just about every scene is intriguing and enjoyable, but aside from an "ah ha" moment or two in the play's final minutes, they don't add up to a great deal. Neither the story (there is no single, over-arching plot thread) or the characters are richer for Dobrish's playing with time.
But the show has a cast of appealing, game performers negotiate these difficulties with ease and intelligence. Randy Danson, Bill Buell, Daniella Alonso, Christopher Innvar, Barbara Garrick, David Garrison, and Josh Radnor all build upon the script's clues to create a group of people who keep you guessing, and make you want to see what happens - or rather happened - to them. That's undoubtedly due to the fine outlines Dobrish has provided: the young man looking for his soul mate, the sexually adventurous middle-aged man, the bartender who uses card tricks to take people home, and the rest of the characters are all solid ideas.
And that's what they remain. At the play's conclusion, the characters and story are still little more than a collection of concepts and sketches forever in search of form and substance. Simply presenting events backwards isn't enough; a show needs to need the type of storytelling it uses. Eight Days (Backwards) doesn't, at least not yet. First, it needs its ideas more fully explored, and that's one thing it never receives.