It's a funny thing, seeing Will Eno's "Oh, the Humanity" (at Gift Theatre) so close to the debut of Aaron Sorkin's latest project, HBO's"The Newsroom." Each is a writer in love with the sound of his voice. Which isn't a bad thing. Not at all. Not when you can write like this.
Sorkin's characters (most recently on "Newsroom") tend to say what they mean. There is no subtext because they don't have time for subtext. By contrast, Eno's characters talk about nothing but the subtext of their lives — those fears and insecurities and random, half-formed thoughts most of us keep tucked away and out of sight. Sorkin's dialogue is more brash, Eno's more contemplative and surreal; but in many respects they are two sides of the same coin. Sorkin deals in surface realities. Eno exposes what's beneath the surface.
For my money, Eno's work tends to work best in condensed bursts. Performed as a collection of five short, sardonic plays (running an hour total), "Humanity" sees each successive piece offering diminishing returns, but Michael Patrick Thornton's no-frills production feels honest to the bone and features a trio of actors who understand how to underplay Eno's dialogue.
This is key.
Because just as there are Sorkinisms, there are Enoisms, which can get exhausting after a point, especially if they are imbued with more meaning than they perhaps ultimately contain. That may be why the first play in the running order — "Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured," a postseason press conference that sounds like an existential diary entry (performed with quiet intelligence and pained comedy by John Gawlik) — also feels like the strongest.
"This was a building year," he says, among other generalities of apology, before stumbling into a memory of the night he stood in the unforgiving light of a grocery store and realized, "You're not having a bad day — this is just what you look like now." Gawlik strikes a brawny figure, but you can see the exhaustion in his eyes, feel his middle-age sense of futility and defeat.
What was lost last year, he asks? "Did any one of us have what he would call a winning season? And what would that even look like? And could someone tell me, while we're at it, when is high school over? When comes high school to its high schoolish end? When begins my true life as me on Earth?"
That is just flat-out terrific writing, self-conscious as it is, and I can't help wondering what any of Sorkin's characters in other shows might sound like if Eno got ahold of them.
Other scenes include a spokeswoman (the wonderfully mutable Brittany Burch) stepping to the podium after a plane crash, verbalizing every absurdist, politically incorrect thought that airline officials have surely had. Later, a pair of young photographers attempt to re-create an old black-and-white war photograph of men who have a "historic look in their eyes." There's also a scene about a video dating service featuring a man (James D. Farruggio) listing his likes and dislikes. "No pets, but I have a great love and understanding of the dog." Also: "I don't have a favorite food. I guess I like cholesterol."
His skittish female counterpart (Burch) sits at the opposite end of the stage, recording her own video. "Anyways. Feelings. Me. Thoughts." She's attracted to "men who black out when asked a difficult question," and she wants to start a family. "Or at least finish one," she says, a small grace note of a line that is as enigmatic as it makes perfect sense.
When: Through Aug. 12
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 1 hour