Review of The Underlying Chris at Second Stage Theater

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    Date:
    November 21, 2019
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    The overarching theme of The Underlying Chris, Will Eno’s clever chronicle of an individual’s plurality, is announced in the play’s quirky prologue. A young girl in a man’s suit (Isabella Russo) wanders on stage to advise that this tale (receiving its world premiere at Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theater) is about “continuality, if that’s a word.” If that seems vague, a more revelatory pronouncement soon follows. Feeling a twinge in her back, she defines it as “a tiny little movement in the just-wrong direction.” Well, she observes, much of life can be described as such, and Eno, Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, and their highly capable cast, prove just that across a dozen dynamic scenes which track one soul’s numerous turns of fate, some tinier than others.

    Eno excels in humorous, intellectual exercises and has no patience for outright sentimentality. This new work is full of metaphysical quandaries and funny, self-referential allusions. Meanwhile, he employs two theatrical devices to assure an absence of tears and a heightened level of attention. First of all, each of the 11-member cast has a turn at playing the title character. As Chris ages he will suddenly become a she and/or transform from a Caucasian Chris to a Chris of color. And for kicks, Chris undergoes a slight name revision with each iteration. Christine begets Krista, Christopher, Christiana and more. Directly spilling the playwright’s thoughts at one point, the Kristin variation of Chris declares, “Bodies come and go, but the spirit, that’s what I was always interested in.” That Chris’s long life seems to play out in the absence of time - no flashback or futuristic changes in designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s functional sets - only adds to the fun.

    Eno’s second feat of daring-do is that rather than offering up the most significant moments of Chris’s existence, we are served the minutes that surround them. Not the sudden death of a family member, but the headache and slurred speech that came right before. Not the falling in love, but the awkward meeting that will lead to a marriage. Thus, new, stimulating challenges constantly arrive. First, the audience must figure out which of several characters on stage is Chris, since, with each new scene, husbands are likely to turn into wives and sons into daughters. Then we must fill in the backstory of what occurred in between scenes. Oh, there was a divorce. Ah ha, a change in career. For those requiring some type of anchor, Chris’s bad back is a constant, as is, metaphorically enough, a case of poor vision.

    Rather than merely being pawns in Eno’s endgame, the actors all find their depths, instilling a welcome dose of humanity to the proceedings. Standouts include Charles Turner as a Khris in decline, Luis Vega in stumbling twentysomething mode, Michael Countryman with a voice that brings an emotional edge to the most ironic of moments, Nidra Sous La Terre as a troubled wife and mother, and Denise Burse as a fading visage of Chrises past. As a whole, this ensemble forms a circle of life. Individually, they are points on a line that runs straight from cradle to grave.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Though I used to write cryptic puzzles for pin money, I don’t think I ever wrote any as tricky and compelling as The Underlying Chris. But at least mine could be solved. That Will Eno’s infernally clever new play — which opened on Thursday at Second Stage Theater — never resolves the riddle of its construction is not a strike against it. Yes, it’s annoying at first, like an anagram you can’t decipher. But the cleverness eventually leads the story to an overwhelmingly emotional conclusion it might otherwise never have reached."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "The wordplay continually refreshes a scene we’ve seen in dozens of movies and other plays. There are glimmers of this wit throughout the play, but the underlying Chris — that emotional and physical core that links this individual to every other human being — keeps getting in the way of any dramatic payoff. Chris is a generic character, one who is everybody and therefore nobody."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Life is filled with chance encounters that can permanently alter our circumstances. Identities are mutable, constantly in flux and subject to random events. These seem to be the main notions of the latest puzzler of a play by Will Eno, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Second Stage. Eno, a writer whose endless delight in messing with our perceptions has been made evident in such works as Thom Pain (based on nothing)The Realistic Joneses and Wakey, Wakey, has delivered yet another existentially tinged piece that, like its predecessors, will likely prove divisive. Some will revel in the underlying themes of The Underlying Chris, while others will no doubt be put off by its purposeful confusions. Let the fighting commence."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "Will Eno, the playwright behind Thom Pain (based on nothing) and The Realistic Joneses, goes full ­­existential in his ambitious new play, “The Underlying Chris,” by following an Everyperson character named Chris/Christine/Christopher, et al, from cradle to grave. Disconcertingly at first, this protean person is alternately played by both male and female performers. But before long, the flexible nature of this ambiguously named character feels fluid and graceful, as (s)he floats effortlessly through time and space."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety