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Title and Deed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Conor Lovett
Photo by Joan Marcus

Universality takes on a vicious double meaning in Title and Deed, the new play by Will Eno that just opened at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Signature Center. One perspective gives you a close-up view of a not-so-strange stranger, a foreigner who's regaling us with tales of his town and culture and country that prove that oceans, mountains, and especially language don't make us any different deep down. The second focuses on Eno himself, and, depending on your personal history with his work, reveals him as either a master minimalist or a purveyor of one-gimmick shows who's bloodily scraping the bottom of his bag of tricks. Ideally, these two visions would coalesce into a single emotionally evocative evening, but that would require a self-awareness that Eno's work, unlike the carefully chiseled personality at its center, does not possess.

That, unfortunately, is an even bigger problem than it sounds. Eno is a master at one thing, and one thing only: expressing the inexpressible nuances of the question "Is this all there is?" as it relates to life in the modern world. He does this through an odd type of verbal poetry constructed from stuttering, misdirection, and shock shifts of intention that force you to listen to every word as though all of its partners in a sentence will contradict it (as, in fact, frequently happens). When this approach is married to an appropriate subject—as it was in Eno's breakthrough 2005 work, the satirically introspective Thom Pain (based on nothing),—it limns deceptively deep insights into the ways we speak to and about ourselves. But when it's employed for effect rather than for a purpose, it's alternately dishonest and excruciating. That's the foundational trouble with Title and Deed.

The underlying concept is that the unnamed man we meet (played by Conor Lovett) has arrived from some distant English-speaking country that shares many, but not all, of the words and experiences we take for granted here. (Given the particular lilt of Lovett's accent, and Signature's presenting this production in associate with the Gare St. Lazare Players, the man's home seems to be Ireland this time around, though that's never specified in the text.) His attempt to communicate his half of our joint humanity is supposed to demonstrate the diaphanous nature of the barriers we erect between each other, and show that his dreams, his fears, his loves, and his loves are just like ours. You don't need to know what specifically a "skipplejick" is, for example, to relate to the concept of unwinding with a warm drink at the end of a long day.

Completely fair is the expectation that, if this man from "somewhere else" is intended as a complete person, he will process life, whether mentally or verbally, in a unique way. But the man's flitting mind and unintentional sense of humor don't brand him an outsider as much as they do a self-conscious construct who's being far less forthright than he claims. As the 75-minute running time progresses, his wryness, innocence, and naïveté become increasingly studied, until it's impossible to believe anything he says. You can't just accept, as Eno demands, that someone as unfamiliar with our culture and our vernacular would be able to craft such intricate absurdities over and over again. ("Lauren and I saw eye to eye for a while," he says about one woman he courted, "but we were not to be, so I went my separate ways"). Nor is it reasonable that someone fluent in English make a statement like, "Mothers and Fathers? Those are something we probably share."

Moments like these are so much more about the creator than his character that Lovett is completely blameless for his inability to sell them. As an actor, he makes no mistakes: He's a gentle and warmly ingratiating onstage presence, providing plenty of avuncular charm, and he has a natural facility with the surprise jokes and derailed-train-of-thought musings that constitute, well, everything he says. He seems at once whisper-close and terrifyingly distant, just what's required for this there-but-not-there visitor. And in terms of the simple, intimate direction (Judy Hegarty Lovett) and the set (by Christine Jones) that envisions the man as one of a trillion living-and-breathing stars in a galaxy that melds effortlessly into the Frank Gehry–designed auditorium, the proceedings are highly polished and professional.

Eno, however, hasn't just failed to make the case that this man must sound and behave this way—it's as if he hasn't even tried. If you saw Thom Pain, you know exactly the style of the style and bite of the dialogue, and Eno has made practically no adaptations, adjustments, or accommodations for this rumination's unique requirements. Whereas Thom intentionally traded on razor-sharp knowledge of himself that he could articulate but not reconcile into worthwhile social interaction, this character's fundamental ignorance of his present surroundings never jibes with either his intense observational abilities or his near-total command of the language. Eno insists you believe in one failing, and one failing alone, but never states a concrete reason that you should.

As a result, you don't, and Title and Deed evokes not its apparently intended reflection of the relationships between people and the places they live, but a smug lecture on the author's ever-unchanging aesthetic. Even more than with Middletown, Eno's highly strained 2010 multi-character riff on Thornton Wilder, this play signals the dramatic danger of too much of a good thing or too little a good imagination. One can understand and empathize with the desire to capitalize on his piquant point of view. But even if a work is designed to illustrate that, below the traditions and idioms we hide behind, we're all essentially the same, we need faith that the man we're listening to will speak to us in his own voice and not that of every other character his playwright has created.

Title and Deed
Through June 17
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
70 minutes with no intermission
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