One is not heartened to learn that the evening’s theater fare will consist of three actors speaking in monologues, as one knows that this is often the recipe for pretension and boredom. But one’s mind is changed upon realizing the playwright is J.T. Rogers, a man whose works may be a lot of things, but pretentious and boring they are not. He doesn’t even do obnoxious things like say “one is” when he means “I am.”
Madagascar, making its world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company, is the third of Rogers’ plays to be produced there. 2000’s White People used essentially the same approach of three actors addressing the audience in separate but related monologues, and if that play was too politically correct for one’s—I’m sorry, my—tastes, it certainly did not lack for thought-provoking subject matter. And Seeing the Elephant, from 2002, was a surreal, self-aware dissection of art and theater; I note that City Weekly’s Scott Renshaw used the phrase “thought-provoking” in his review, too.
Rogers’ latest work—once again highly literate without being stuffy—is thought-, discussion- and emotion-provoking as it tells of three people dealing with a mysterious disappearance. I hesitate to say too much about the details, because the way Rogers methodically reveals them is part of the fun. I can say that the setting is a hotel room in Rome in which three people have stayed: an economist named Nathan (Joe Cronin) is there now; tour guide June (Brenda Sue Cowley) is there five days ago; and globe-trotting widow Lilian (Anne Cullimore Decker) is there five years ago. They take turns speaking to us, everyone remaining in the room for purposes of staging but technically only existing there one at a time; kudos to Cynthia L. Kehr’s sound design and James M. Craig’s lighting for creating three distinct settings to keep the characters’ timelines separate.
There is no exposition. Instead, the characters tell us little things about themselves—Nathan was best friends with an economist named Arthur; Lilian’s philosophy in life is to never look back; June has lived in a hotel room for three years rather than renting an apartment—and leave it to us to figure out how they are connected, and how they’re involved with the person who has disappeared.
The structure is brilliant, the hopscotching through time allowing us to know things that the characters themselves don’t know. Yet we wonder, too: Who are Gideon and Paul, referred to but not seen? If June was living in the hotel room five days ago, why is Nathan there now? Director Gus Reyes, a longtime Rogers collaborator, expertly keeps the play intriguing rather than confusing. We are in the dark at times, but we feel confident the light will come.
Joe Cronin, a Utah Shakespearean Festival regular making his SLAC debut, melts perfectly into the role of a dull economist whose personal affairs are far less nerdy than his job would suggest, and the always-reliable Brenda Sue Cowley is heartbreaking as a wounded, traumatized young woman.
But the standout is Anne Cullimore Decker, Salt Lake’s go-to gal for imperious, Kate Hepburn-y characters. She shines brightly as Lilian, a woman forever in competition with her daughter for the affections of her own son. Often haughty but somehow accessible, her radiant socialite smile tricking you into believing it’s sincere, she seems like a favored wealthy aunt (pronounced “awnt,” surely, darling).
What are we watching, essentially, is the destruction of a family, first as a unit and then individually. Rogers’ characters speak with humor and honesty, buoying the spirits even when the events depicted are tragic. The play is a thrilling success, professional theater at its finest. One would do well to see it soon.
MADAGASCAR Salt Lake Acting Company 168 W. 500 North Through Dec. 12 363-7522