Difficult-to-characterize play dissects our most difficult emotion
Published: January 29, 2014
The Flu Season
By Will Eno
Directed by Alix Fenhagen
Through Feb. 15 at Single Carrot Theatre
The 1999 Magnetic Fields album 69 Love Songs investigates nearly every permutation of the word “love” in nearly every conceivable vein of fin-de-siècle pop music. So it’s fitting that Single Carrot Theatre opened its production of Will Eno’s The Flu Season—the first in its new home (see sidebar)—with a version of that band’s “Come Back from San Francisco.” Like that album, Flu Season investigates various permutations of what we call love, but instead of using the tropes and tricks of Tin Pan Alley, the Carrot mines the annals of medicine and of the theater itself.
After the Magnetic Fields song, the character named Prologue (Dustin C.T. Morris) does a song-and-dance number on Single Carrot’s beautiful new stage, set up at an incline and decked out by the excellent Ryan Haase with a silver-y backdrop that manages to evoke both psychiatric sterility and Hollywood glam. The action in the play is all balanced—as is natural, if overly meta—in the figurative space between the hopeful Prologue and the far more cynical Epilogue (Allyson Harkey). Though seen by some as descendants of Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager, these two characters have far deeper roots stretching back to Aristophanes. But they are also just another permutation of the heterosexual dynamics that govern the rest of the play.
A Man (Paul Diem) and a Woman (the always-excellent Jessica Garrett) find themselves in a hospital—though their maladies seem to be psychological more than viral—being cared for by a Doctor (Michael Salconi) and a Nurse (Genevieve de Mahy), who aren’t immune to the vicissitudes of love themselves. These three male/female pairs suggest that the flu of the title is erotic love itself: Anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love knows that we have no more control over our desires than we do a viral infection. Love comes over us in ways we can’t control, and it is always rather something of a miracle that this bug strikes two people at precisely the same time and in the same way. But that, it seems, is what we mean by a “great love”—mutual passion. The rest, madly misaligned desire, forms the subject of both comedy and tragedy.
The Flu Season is a bit too clinical to come across as either tragedy or comedy, and a bit too abstract to play like an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Nevertheless, it straddles the line between all of these in a provocative and entertaining fashion as we watch the three couples dance between isolation and connection. None of the individual stories could work, but the three taken together add up to something more than the isolated coupling that love pushes us toward.
The prevailing mood of The Flu Season grows from the way that the Man and the Woman interact not only with each other but with the Doctor and the Nurse, who are responsible for the greatest comic moments of the play. Salconi and de Mahy have exceptionally good chemistry, and whatever aid their characters may be able to give to their patients is interrupted by their own desires, which are played with a touching restraint and an aching sadness that seems central to the play.
While the Doctor and the Nurse come across as fully human, the Man and the Woman—despite solid acting by Garrett and Diem—remain more archetypical, closer really to Prologue and Epilogue than real people. But is this not how our own physicians see us? Do they know us as really three-dimensional people? Or do they, in fact, see us much more like specimens, or characters in a play? And don’t we see our doctors as little more than plot devices which propel us either into the tragedy of a bad diagnosis or the relief of a false alarm?
It’s not that the Man and the Woman are exactly archetypes. They each have particular stories that lead them to the hospital, where they come together. It’s just that something about the play forces you away from their individuality and toward something more universal. Which is not to say that the performances aren’t filled with emotion. Garrett is able to bring a real sadness to her role as she remains sick when the Man’s flu seems to pass as quickly as it came on, and Diem plays that cold loss of feeling with the kind of distance that is baffling, even when we observe it in ourselves.
Still, The Flu Season is an odd play. It is not plot-driven and the characters don’t have psychological depth, as in Chekhov. There is a lot of clever dialogue, but it also is not sparkling enough to become one of those talky numbers one could endlessly quote. And the postmodern gambit of having the Prologue and Epilogue comment on the play is not so pronounced that one could classify the play as post-Pirandello commentary on theater.
But whatever it is that carries this play, it works and was a nice choice for Single Carrot to introduce itself to the wider audience its new home will allow.
To see a gallery of Michael Northrup’s photos from the Single Carrot Theatre grand opening, visit citypaper.com/sctopening
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