Recently, the satirical publication The Onion ran an article with the headline "Boyfriend Keeps Bringing Up Scrabble Victory" about an underconfident male who compulsively uses his penchant for the triple-word score as a weapon in the battle for superiority with his girlfriend.
While watching the Tri-Lakes Theatre's daring rendition of Lewis John Carlino's 1963 absurdist one-act Epiphany, I kept seeing shades of Scrabble-boy in the ornithologist character of The Man, except in this play the game of choice happens to be Simon Says.
The Man and, you guessed it, The Woman make up one seriously kooked-out onstage couple. From the get-go, they are at one another's throats in a war of words and gestures, each trying to gain the upper hand in order to retain its concomitant bragging rights. As fierce as this sounds, the Tri-Lakes rendition of Epiphany, despite a tragic undercurrent, is no dark family drama -- not a conventional one anyway. Rather, director Karen C. Kennedy mixes menacing, straight-faced absurdity with the whimsically comic machinations of a relationship gone weird.
For these characters, every move is obsessively calculated and theatrical, designed to get the other's goat. A perverse glee springs out of this intricate game; The Man stakes his entire self-worth on the ability to flamboyantly deride his wife. An hilarious irony emerges: The more energy he employs to adopt poses of indifferent superiority and high contempt, the more the audience understands how important her judgment must be in his psyche. Like a Nabokov narrator, he is both supremely articulate and entirely clueless about how ridiculous he appears.
Chip Mac Enulty's repertoire of elaborate scoffs, triumphant talk-to-the-hand-style rebukes, flinching hurt, and just plain grandiosity are all milked for humor and pathos in this role. He pulls off a neat trick by taking an inherently annoying character and hitting enough notes of likability that we never lose sympathy for him, grating as he can get.
Natalie Palan plays The Woman with a singular flair. When she deadpans lines like "Are you trying to antagonize me?" the audience can't help laughing at the obvious answer. Her bold colors and sharp facial expressions, combined with jabs of sexual potency, provide a strong foil for Mac Enulty's raging inadequacy. Through all of this, Palan's character retains a decidedly tempered cheerfulness: You can tell she enjoys being in control, but she also longs for the real interaction and intimacy that remains locked behind her husband's fearful shell.
The play makes a foray into sadder territory, made unfortunately less subtle by the playwright's insistence on making ideas about manliness and sexual orientation a little too obvious. Still, Mac Enulty's sheer energy and emotional risks carry the play through to its bizarre climax, creating an ending replete with longing. By the time you leave this small venue and head out into the cool night in view of beautiful Palmer Lake, you may not buy that The Man would truly count on his strange experiment to give him what he wants, but your mind will be reeling from a night of intimate, in-your-face theater.