EVERYWHERE SIGNS FALL Gremlin Theatre; at the Loading Dock Theater through May 11 651.228.7008
The action in Alan M. Berks's harrowing new two-act ostensibly takes place in a sultry motel room in Phoenix, where the air conditioning has conked out and where bottles of booze and a loaded gun are strewn about (Chekhov would be proud). We meet Juliet (Tracey Maloney) and her nebbish brother, Jeremy (Paul Cram), who, following the loss of both their parents in quick succession, have taken to the American road to compile audio and video in a grand experiment to nail down the precise nature of happenstance and calamity. Their latest subject is besotted bartender Guy (John Middleton), who had been dancing in the middle of a road when he was almost run down by haphazard motorist Juliet. Jeremy is clearly on the verge of some sort of breakthrough, or breakdown (take your pick), while Guy and Juliet sneak seductive looks at one another behind Jeremy's back. Here, though, events take a detour, and Berks slices and splices this increasingly disconcerting evening in scenes that rubber-band forward and backward in time, teasing out the characters' back stories and the tragedy toward which they are barreling head-on. This might sound like a play living too firmly in the head, but the key that unlocks Berks's puzzle is raw emotion: specifically, the particular ache of guilt over past misdeeds. Middleton is wry and amused as a man who became a widower in a single, grisly moment; he performs with the laid-back maturity of an old film star. Cram is convincing as a guy whose door is short a couple of hinges (though the circumstances of his guilt are the least convincing), and Maloney aptly navigates a character whose primary function is to smooth matters over and keep secrets. Director Leah Cooper keeps the pace driving. The show leans too heavily on video and sound, breaking things up with recorded vignettes and having the players point a camera at one another several times too many, but behind the circuitry is a genuine beating heart, and a labyrinthine story that unties its knots by the end with a satisfying, deadly conclusion.