The line of succession from Samuel Beckett to playwright Will Eno runs through the Irish actor Conor Lovett.
An internationally acclaimed Beckett interpreter, Lovett believes that both writers' avoidance of traditional narrative opens up new opportunities for exploring human possibilities in the theater.
"[They] create a tapestry of words that presses so many buttons," he said last week in a backstage conversation at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, where he'll perform "Title and Deed," a solo performance piece written for him by Eno.
The short Rubicon run Wednesday through Sunday will be the play's first U.S. performance since its 2012 debut at New York's Signature Theatre and its only U.S. stop on an international tour by Lovett's France-based Gare St. Lazare Players.
Playwright Eno, whose "The Realistic Joneses" drew critical praise and perplexity in equal measure in its recently ended Broadway run, has often been compared to and readily cites Beckett as an early influence in shaping his own dramaturgical style, dubbed "stand-up existentialism" by the New York Times.
Returning to the monologue format of his breakout play, "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," Eno's "Title and Deed" is his most Beckett-like work to date — an edgy marriage of wit, solitude and search for meaning embodied in the first-person observations of a nameless foreign visitor whose travels have become a perpetual psychic exile.
Lovett, simply dressed and speaking with the affability and calm precision that distinguishes his lanky everyman onstage presence, said that for the play's self-described "un-homed" narrator "home is less about a physical place than about a sense of ease and a personal sense of belonging."
He employs the disarming, emotionally riveting and often hilarious style of direct address he's perfected over the years as an unobtrusive way to tear down the fourth wall. "We try to create a space where the audience can join in without feeling like we're trying to manipulate them," he said.
"The fundamental paradox in Will's play," added Lovett's director, wife and artistic co-pilot Judy Hegarty Lovett, "is that it depicts loneliness in such an engaging way. It's not like the character is in some other world that we're asking the audience to view and guess about."
"Title and Deed" is the result of a 15-year association between Eno and the Lovetts.
"I've known these guys since I saw them do [Beckett's] 'Molloy' in 1999," Eno said by phone from his Brooklyn apartment, where he and his wife, actress Maria Dizzia, are awaiting the imminent birth of their first child.
After more than a decade of trying to come with up a project to do with the Lovetts, the breakthrough came when Eno saw Lovett again, this time performing Beckett's short story
"I had the kind of experience that I'm always envious of when I hear writers talking about it," Eno said. "The line 'I'm not from here' popped into my head and I just imagined him in New York or somewhere in the States, that guy — Conor Lovett — coming out and saying it … and off we went. I had his voice in mind and he very much speaks it the way I heard it when I wrote it."
"Title and Deed" is a departure from most of the material in the Lovetts' performance repertoire of classic literary prose works. "I wouldn't say that they like their authors dead, but …." Eno remarked on the play's collaborative development, conducted via
Eno's writing may embrace an existentialist philosophy, but rather than merely presenting it he immerses the audience in it by violating expectations of narrative, character and substance. "I think of it as an encounter," Lovett said, "where the audience has an opportunity to meet somebody, and yet they're a part of this encounter rather than following a story."
"I don't like to say it's non-linear because there is actually a line, just not necessarily a straight one," Hegarty added. "And every bit of it is connected. It's a writer going as close as he can to having a conversation with you and about you at the same time."
"Trying to get an audience to feel certain strains of what the character might be feeling, whether it's an existentialist void or something like that, I would say, yeah, absolutely — it's my great hope," Eno agreed, though he prefers the "e-word" in its least pretentious sense.
"You can be a sophisticated person who studies French philosophy and arrives at an existentialist viewpoint, but then you can also be like any 5-year-old kid in the world suddenly wondering why you're here — not in the great void but in the living room of the house — 'Who am I? What's my relationship to these people here?' ... Thoughts and feelings that are in line with dense and esoteric philosophy, but really they're pretty simple questions."
In wrestling with those questions, the contradictory intricacies and limitations of language are signature aspects of Eno's writing, noted Hegarty. "Will is at once saying language is a very useful, helpful tool to express some of this thing called living, but at times it just doesn't work. And Beckett says the same."
Eno said he's always had a suspicious relationship with language, but it has evolved over time.
"I suppose at some point when I was younger everything felt alien and beyond my power of comprehension and control, so language felt more alien to me too," he said. "But as the years go on I'm slowly coming around to the view that it's pretty good, language — I don't know if it's maturity or resignation, but what else do you have?
"What's really positive and interesting to me is that there are things that are beyond the realm of this incredibly effective communication tool that we invented," he continued. "I think of them as shimmering, strange, mysterious things rather than a sort of interior pain that someone has that they can't express. And it seems all right to me that there are things that can't be expressed … 'cause shouldn't there be?"
'Title and Deed'
Where: Rubicon Theatre, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.