Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Underlying Chris

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 21, 2019

Michael Countryman and Nidra Sous La Terre
Photo by Joan Marcus
Two thirds of the way through The Underlying Chris, Will Eno's strange and wonderful new play currently running at Second Stage Theater, a character says about a Department of Motor Vehicles employee, "She doesn't even see me. I could be a thousand different people." These observations are made by Kit, one of the many iterations of Chris, the play's central focus. Morphing in age, gender, and race, Chris is presented as, if not a thousand, nearly a dozen different people.

The play begins with a prologue delivered by a precocious adolescent girl (Isabella Russo) as if she is introducing a school pageant. After the usual reminders about cell phones, emergency exits, and the use of photography, she informs the audience that the subject of the play is "life on Earth." More specifically, she explains, "This is the journey of a certain Chris through the world, through time and places and doors."

The exquisitely realized scenes that follow chart a certain Chris's life from crib to grave. Along the way, though, the character assumes numerous personas, such as Christine, Krista, Topher, Christiana, Khris, and others. Yet, the story is about one individual, and what all of the protean forms have in common is the essence of, or an underlying, Chris.

The plot's thread is generally a familiar one. The protagonist's childhood is beset by tragedies, and adulthood is marked by career changes, a failed marriage, and declining physical health. In fact, the narrative structure is reminiscent of Our Town in which the Stage Manager says that Thornton Wilder's play reveals "the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying." Eno's manipulation of time and shifting identities, however, creates a disorienting sense of unknowability for the audience, and it is as if viewing the life of a person through an irregular prism.

One could read into the representations of diverse identities in a single character as an expression of the interconnectedness of humans and the universality of experience. Drawing on principles from Psychoanalysis 101, the multitude of Chrises may be a manifestation of Jung's notion of a "collective unconscious."

Or maybe not. The pleasure of watching a Will Eno play is realizing that interpretation is futile. His works underscore life's existential absurdities, and his dialogue revels in non sequiturs and philosophical one-liners. For instance, when his driver's license is revoked, Kit (a deliciously deadpan Michael Countryman) wryly tells his daughter Joan (movingly portrayed by Nidra Sous La Terre), "I'm just starting to figure out who I am, and they take away my identification." And among the many quotable quips, a personal favorite is delivered by a radio talk show host (Countryman again), who asks, "We all know how aromatic candles are made, but, have you ever wondered why?"

Directed by Kenny Leon, the production moves fleetly and efficiently. Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design and Amith Chandrashaker's lighting transform the stage as quickly and nonchalantly across time and space as the actors assume the various guises of Chris. Dede Ayite designed the costumes, and although the events span more than eighty years, there is wisely no attempt to call attention to changing styles and tastes.

Charles Turner, Lizbeth MacKay,
and Nicholas Hutchinson

Photo by Joan Marcus
Playing a host of Chrises and the people in her and his life, the performances are impeccable. There are eleven cast members, but they convey a sense of an entire community. Every performer has a chance to have an impact. It is difficult to single out individual performances, but Hannah Cabell is sweetly daffy as a doting new mother concerned about newborn Chris whose back seems to make a clicking sound. ("Babies click sometimes," a nurse on the other end of a phone call helpfully tells her.) She is also very funny as a scattershot legal guardian to Christine (Russo, who is excellent in a number of roles).

As Krista, a grandmother trying to connect with her grandson (Nicholas Hutchinson), Lizbeth MacKay superbly shows the regrets and repentance that come with late middle-age. And as the oldest version of the character, Charles Turner as Khris exhibits resilience in aging but the inevitability of infirmity. (Back issues plague the character at every age.)

One of the Chrises ruefully admits, "It's easy for people to forget who they are sometimes." Perhaps this is true, but in Eno's lovely and thought-provoking play, The Underlying Chris makes a memorable and indelible impression.

The Underlying Chris
Through December 15, 2019
Second Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: