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Circle Mirror Transformation

The opening of Annie Baker's comedy about five ordinary people in a Vermont community center's drama class couldn't be less funny, or theatrical: five bodies lying on the hardwood floor playing a counting game, where each shouts one number in the sequence of one to 10 without interrupting anybody else. The purpose is to be "present," and sensitive to the silence in the room. And the action never leaves that room, designed by David Zinn, through a series of short scenes spanning the six class sessions over six weeks. There's much silence in Sam Gold's staging of the entire play — deliberately, strategically. Though set in a drama class that veers into group therapy (nobody does any acting, one aspiring actress complains; they just tell stories from their lives, or from the lives of their classmates), both the play and its production aim to squelch the kinds of theatrical devices that keep an audience's attention; at the same time, the play reveals microscopic truths of day-to-day living. These include awkward silences. It's a bit like turning a video camera on a rather mediocre acting class, to see what that says about life. Playwright Baker brings similar verisimilitude to the dialogue, which consists of non sequiturs and interrupted confessions, in what might be called profound inarticulation. Despite the buckets of cold water thrown on the artifices of theater that usually keep our attention, Baker's poeticism and play structure are deviously canny. What emerges is a tautly structured, macroscopic poem about the trajectories of ordinary lives as seen through a microscope. A middle-aged, newly divorced carpenter (Ayre Gross) falls for the younger actress (Marin Hinkle) up from the city; though she toys with him for a week or two, her real target is the husband (Brian Kerwin) of the group leader (Linda Gehringer). Their marriage falls to pieces before our eyes. And so on. Not sure the insights about infidelity and breaking hearts and sexual abuse go beyond generic, but the way they're revealed, mostly in the silences, is a wonder and a credit to the ensemble. Call it a Chekhovian exercise in modern Vermont. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 30. (714) 708-5555.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 & 7:30 p.m. Starts: Jan. 14. Continues through Jan. 30, 2011

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