The don't - I - know - you - from - someplace moment, déjà vu, the uncanny territory of dreams: These are the raw data in the great signal-to-noise debate that posits transcendent meaning at one pole of explanation and psychic flatulence at the other. In either case, art is probably as apt a place as neurology or quantum psychics to look for answers. The latest Gremlin Theatre world premiere, titled Almost Exactly Like Us, cuts, pastes, recasts, and generally abuses reality as we know it with stimulating results.
The first act concerns mathematician Michael (Peter Hanson) and his ostensibly random meeting with Zoe (Emily Gunyou) in a public square in an unnamed Muslim country. They bond as expats and an affair begins. One thinks that Twin Cities writer Alan M. Berks is setting us up here for an Age of Terror drama, especially when we learn that terrorism has scarred Michael's life. But soon enough Michael and Zoe are shedding layers of secrets like so much skin, and Michael's brother-in-law Anders (Anthony Brown) is getting himself in hot water for Christian proselytizing and vigorous Jesus freakery.
Designer Carl Schoenborn plays on this sense of compartmentalized truths with his utilitarian set, carving out two domestic spaces and a lonely bench to represent the pubic sphere. Soon enough we learn that Michael and Zoe are each telling half-truths to one another. Gunyou is more effective. As we will later learn, Zoe is the linchpin of the work, and Gunyou projects a conflicted and mature interior life beneath her youthfulness. Hansen in the early going is hard to read, even as a dissembler, and his scenes with Gunyou suffer from an earnestness that tends to obscure the already murky games their characters are playing.
But it's fun to try to keep up, frankly, and after the intermission, one expects perhaps a continued adventure in which Michael tries to rescue Anders while finding love with Zoe. Well, one would have seen too many recent Hollywood movies. Berks, to his credit, shakes things up, and director Matt Sciple's cast subsequently moves into parallel realities in which the same characters emerge in entirely different circumstances. This time around, Michael is teaching math at a Christian college where Anders is a perpetual undergraduate. Brown steps beyond his cut-out craziness in the first act, finding a solid sense of frustration and muted desire in the life of this timid semi-dropout. Michael's wife Helen (Shannon Rusten, in a performance that locates the steely resolve in every dogmatist's wife) stares at the TV and seems little more alive than when she was offstage--and dead--in the first act. Things are, in short, a drag.
But then Michael meets Zoe again (sort of), in an echo of their first encounter. A strange and terrific sequence ensues in which Michael comes home from work and is alternately: rebuffed, seduced, stabbed, and lukewarmly accepted (reality gone all fractal, you see, which happens when you think too much). Soon Zoe shows up at Michael and Helen's place, armed with the notebook she filled in another life, and haunted by her glimpses into the infinity of possibility. By the time we're done, we've seen a bad marriage fail, a dorm-room coward fail to score with a cute girl, and a worst-case dystopia in which high-tech war has reduced America to a place in which (steel yourself, now) there is no television signal.
A feeling sets in during the second act that one or two stones too many have been overturned. Finally, matters of safety and security go through a kaleidoscopic prism of quantum physics, which really does suggest that a new universe might be created with each action. What stands out here is how the actors steer a heady work from its potential excesses. Ultimately, this production, while not the best of all possible creations, unites a beating heart to the infinite texture of the universe. It's not just the end of the play that the audience has to swallow, but the end of the world.