God is dead. He died in the 1950s during the Theater of the Absurd movement, when European playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello and Dario Fo turned men into rhinos and clueless apes, bereft of empathy and humanity. These guys wrote comedies of existential despair that went out of fashion as quickly as they came in.
Truth is, God never really died in the American theater. Absurdism never took hold here. Maybe it was because bombs were never dropped on our mainland, our economy was healthier and there was an undercurrent of optimism that kept our theater comparatively realistic and romantic.
But in late 2011, in the long wake of 9/11, God suddenly looks very, very ill, at least according to a couple of plays on local stages. It's as though we're suddenly turning retro-European, skeptical if not cynical, with a certain loss of faith that we're capable of being human — if being human means being civilized.
Gregory Moss' House of Gold at Ensemble Studio Theatre (reviewed last week) takes a look at schoolyard bullying and the abduction and murder of JonBenét Ramsey via a skittish clown show staged on a psychedelic set. You can almost see the ghost of Ionesco nodding in approval. (That play was born last year at Washington, D.C.'s, Woolly Mammoth Theatre.)
Brett Neveu's 4 Murders was first presented at Chicago's Red Orchid Theatre in 2005 and now is being staged by SkyPilot Theatre Company at T.U. Studios in North Hollywood. Brett Neveu? This play could have been written by Albert Camus.
It consists of four scenes, each featuring a seemingly benign and amiable guy (Eric Curtis Johnson) who claims his name is Joel (before denying it) and that he works in a toy store. The play throws him into situations where, in each scene, he's meeting someone for the first time: a woman (Heather Roop) who invites him up to her apartment; a guy (Germaine De Leon) working late at the office to whom Joel delivers takeout; a feisty woman (Morgan Lariah) he meets at a bus stop after the late shift; and the denizen (Guy Mack) of a flea-pit motel. In each of these meetings, it seems like nothing much is happening. The taut conversations are purposefully banal and agreeable before Joel pulls out a knife and, for no particular reason, stabs them three times before bidding them farewell and gingerly leaving.
No, this isn't a horror flick. This isn't the Gothic parody, like the satirical violent-murder tableaux in Urban Death, staged up the street at Zombie Joe's Underground. A couple of Neveu's characters barely notice they've been stabbed, and their reaction to the consequent seeping out of their energy is more perplexed than alarmed, almost quizzical, accompanied by Jonathan Price's lyrical sound design and Dave Craig's video images that drape across Kurtis Beford's set like a mural.
Beford's set has furniture pieces hanging from the sky and off the walls, tilted at odd angles, as though the manifestations of a dream in a Lewis Carroll story.
The furniture isn't polished, nor are the performances, though they certainly get the job done under James Sharpe's direction. And that job is creating the sense, through the stasis of most of the scenes, of gentle detachment, of people's distance from each other and from the world's invariable shocks of violence that come when we least expect them. The play doesn't preach its view but simply shows it, which is why it's closer to a poem than an assertion. How can something so horrifying be so gentle? Absurdity doesn't need to be noisy or ostentatious.
In Camus' The Stranger, the central character, Meursault, after committing murder, keeps shooting into the corpse for a reason he doesn't understand, detached from his own actions. Later, on death row, Meursault mocks the priest who tries to show him the light of God.
Absurdism was derided as useless nihilism. But if that were true, if there weren't some moral argument within the despair, plays like 4 Murders and House of Gold wouldn't appear half a century later and a continent away, as reflection upon our now bruised optimism.
4 MURDERS | By Brett Neveu | Presented by SkyPilot Theatre Company at T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd. | Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 20 | (800) 838-3006 | skypilottheatre.com