Brendan Gall’s Wide Awake Hearts (at 59E59 Theaters—directed by Stefan Dzeparoski for Birdland Theatre) is one of those plays in which life imitates art, hell is other people, and you always kill the thing you love. It’s the sort of play where the clever, well-spoken and self-dramatizing characters have no names, just letters: A, B, C, and D. Where everybody seems to be playing mind games with one other—skirmishes that bring to mind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s “Humiliate the Host,” “Get the Guests” and “Hump the Hostess.”
When you hear this script’s first line—“The whole thing’s a nightmare”—you’re on your way to figuring out just where Gall is going (The subtitle of the play—included in the press packet but not in the program—is “a nightmare with no intermission.”)
Gall’s characters here are an indie film director, A (Ben Cole), and his actor-wife, B (Clea Alsip). The leading man in A’s new feature film is his longtime best friend, C (Tony Naumovski). B and C portray lovers in the film, and A suspects that their on-camera passion has spilled over into life. Perhaps he has even willed himself to become a cuckold out of some sort of masochistic virus that has infected his artistic temperament. To complicate matters further, into the action steps D (Maren Bush), a young film editor who coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) has been involved with C in a relationship that is nearly as fraught with psychosexual issues as is A and B’s marriage.
The basic problem here is that it’s about as easy for an audience member to connect emotionally with A, B, C, and/or D as it would be if they were variables in an algebraic equation or squiggles of macaroni in alphabet soup. Even when the steamed-up characters are ripping at each other’s clothes, their passions seem, somehow, remote and cold. And why aren’t A and his associates more focused on the nuts and bolts of the film they’re making? I certainly wouldn’t care to invest Kickstarter cash in a project whose creative team seemed more interested in indulging their pet neuroses than in making a work of cinematic art.
The actors strive mightily. Of the four, Naumovski fares best, demonstrating both steady concentration and an ease with the play’s style and tone. The most involving scene comes at play’s end, when B and C enact multiple takes of the same film sequence while D analyzes the action from her editor’s perspective. Alsip, Naumovski and Bush all do good work in this sequence.
The major design element comes in the form of projections by Rocco DiSanti, which often consist of slices of an actor’s face appearing like puzzle pieces on seven separate screens of different sizes. (You’ve possibly seen effects like this before, in art installations.) Elliot Davoren’s ominous (though occasionally distracting) sound design also plays a prominent part in the play’s ambience.