LIBBY IS PANICKED. She's about to host a dinner party--which, let's face it, is a much bigger deal than we all pretend it is. There are people, in your own house! People you might not know very well! Eating food you prepared! Together!
Libby (Annelise Christ in a gorgeous performance, her finest yet) fumbles with name cards and rehearses her niceties, faking familiarity with the books of one guest. Sarah, Ireally love your writing. What I really love about your books are the covers. Libby squints at her invisible guests, antagonizes them, watches as they get into an argument. This party, the central event of Craig Lucas's Blue Window, looks destined for disaster. Libby huddles into herself as if she'd just swallowed a time-release poison pill.
Meanwhile, Libby's guests are at home, conducting their own preparty rituals on different parts of the stage. Though they're New Yorkers, several have sort of Southern Gothic names. Boo (Tracey Maloney), a tiny young woman, sits in an armchair and listens to a Walkman, concentrating, pounding the chair's arms as if providing a slow backbeat to Mozart's Requiem. Norbert sits cross legged in a corner and tosses an orange above his head, over and over. Emily and Tom hang out together (or should I say alone?), as Tom stares at a TV and vainly tries to finish a song he's writing. Griever peers into the mirror, pushes up his cheeks, slaps underneath his chin, sprays deodorant in the air, and tosses dress shirts across the floor like some wannabe Gatsby. Libby sits on her futon and tries to crack mussels on the coffee table. Tap-tap-tap. Toss, catch. Spray. Pound. Tap-tap-tap. Pound. Spray. Toss, catch. Pound pound. Tap-tap-tap.
The ensemble slides into this rhythmic angst jam seamlessly, and the actors play off each other throughout the show as if connected by invisible antennae. The only problem is that it's sometimes hard to hear what anyone's saying, as Griever spouts a stream-of-consciousness acceptance speech to the mirror, Libby talks at unseen jerks, and Boo negotiates another potential tiff with her partner, Sarah.
The stage is steeply raked, enough to make us nervous for the actors, and the walls and floor are painted a rather garish blue. (If the sky were to ever turn this color, it would surely be a sign of the coming apocalypse.) All the furniture is cream colored, like some George Segal installation, clashing with the electric-blue surrounds. Despite this, the intended effect is achieved: This world is precariously balanced, and its inhabitants seem to live with the perpetual possibility of falling down, or perhaps floating away.
Director Jay Dysart beautifully captures this slippery situation. And though the play is adventurously acted, the script is hardly perfect--perhaps it takes too many risks to achieve any easy sense of cohesion. In that sense, it has a subtle self-consciousness, as if constantly asking itself, How many rules can we bend? Still, its emotional subtext goes deep, and deeper still, spanning down and out into the infinite space between people: strangers, friends, lovers, friends who could be lovers, lovers who should perhaps be friends.
Like a real dinner party, there's no single figure to call the star, except maybe the hostess; yet it's not one of those Chorus Line setups where each actor takes a turn to tell her story. As in real life, some people reveal themselves, some don't. For most of the play we wonder about Libby: Why is she so shy? Why won't she let anyone touch her? Norbert (David Schulner) uses silence as a form of expression; he even leads us through 26 seconds of silence to demonstrate the length of a beginning-skydiver's fall. Brian Baumgartner pulls in the reins as Griever, Libby's torch-bearing best buddy. (After a chain of super-commanding performances last season, it's nice to see him surrender center stage).
We learn, slowly, that falling has been a theme in these people's lives: in and out of love, off balconies, and out of airplanes. What it means to each person says a lot: Is it exhilarating? Nauseating? How do we handle the uncontrollable nature of being human? Do we fight it, or try to accept--even enjoy--that unbearable lightness?
The play is strongest when it approaches these issues through metaphor, silence, physical interactions, and storytelling rather than overt statement. Libby's long speech about a nightmarish fall that nearly killed her is devastating and utterly devoid of sentimentality. But when Emily (Erin Fisk) breaks into a confessional song while the other characters freeze, we get the play's message served on a platter. Everyone in the big city is searching for the same thing, she sings. Everyone in the world wants the same thing. It's a moving moment, but bizarre, almost comical. And it begs the question: Is it necessary to articulate a feeling in order to express it?
Blue Window runs through November 30 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts' Little Theatre; call 377-2616.