Eric Overmeyer's On the Verge, a stab at cosmic adventure comedy staged here by Gremlin Theatre, opens with three women traveling to a land called, with scant subtlety, Terra Incognita in 1888. They are ladies of means who usually prefer solo world travel, but who've come together to test the limits of the unexplored. The borderland they locate is approximately on the edge of pointlessness, a state of affairs that an appealing and well-directed cast nearly overcomes.
In the early going, middle-aged adventurers Mary (Linda Sue Anderson) and Fanny (Ellen Apel) are joined by the youthful Alex (Heidi Bakke). Joel Sass's set design faces unique challenges, given how far afield the action eventually drifts, and his use of antique wood tones and carved-looking cartographic lines on the stage floor nicely evoke pre-air-travel days. Terra Incognita, it turns out, is a jungle, and Mary gamely suggests that they "whack bush," while Alex groans about tropical life and drifts into reveries of free association.
There's some business about collecting "generic scenes" on postcards, and a series of reminisces about sights seen that speak of the cultural arrogance of the traveling representative of empire. But there is really no need to bother oneself about it, because after all the glib stories of Sherpas, the Masai, and voodooized exoticism, the script happily moves on without a deepening picture of who these ladies are and what might be the particulars of their view of, and relation to, the "natives." Soon enough things take a turn for the weird--odd words come to the women's mind unbidden, and they dig up an "I Like Ike" campaign button in the sands. We learn little about the characters, but director Natalie Diem's cast quite respectably projects their distinct identities. Anderson's Mary is reflective and perhaps in charge by default, while Apel's Fanny seems mired in a tug-of-war over how to reconcile with the life she left back home. Bakke's Alex is another matter altogether--girlish and scattershot, she even manages to (partly) sell an annoying running gag about her propensity for malapropisms.
Coming in and out is the busy Steve Lewis, who plays (by rough count) seven roles including a Yeti, a Chinese Dragon Lady dispensing fortune-cookie advice, a Fonz-like troll, a '50s grease monkey, and a native cannibal who assumes the personality of a German pilot after eating him. He's like a pinball in a conceptual tornado, and is rarely less than funny.
The latter half of the proceedings entails the women moving through some variety of space-time vortex and landing in Las Vegas. In 1955. It's all right that the contrast is a bit jarring, since there are an inordinate amount of monologues about how each character is losing her moorings, and how much things are changing. Vegas in the '50s might not be the finest dramatic destination, but by the time we're there we're certainly ready to get on with it.
We might then look for connections between the proto-feminism of the women travelers, their implied cultural imperialism, and how it all interacts with pre-Civil Rights America. Or, if you're Overmeyer, you can settle for a consumer-centric equivalent of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." America? Sure, it's Burma Shave, Cool Whip, The National Review, and "Willie and the Hand Jive." Isn't it funny to juxtapose random things? And sort of, you know, deep? There's a point in here somewhere about the travelers' superficial attitude of acquisition and the plastic future they eventually embrace (save for Mary, who sensibly moves along). But it isn't worth chasing down, not really, not amid all the superficiality, the empty verbiage, and the odd sense that the script commits the sin of feeling insufficient affection for its own characters. One feels this production could have tackled greater depths (perhaps in the material-selection phase of things) but, alas, the cast is left to wade in knee-deep waters. It's a nicely crafted production of a play from which its own mother might withhold affection. Love the sinner, hate the sin, as they say.