It’s exactly what it says in the title. Josh Dolphin and Penny Cartwright have adapted (well, not so much “adapted” as transposed) David Foster Wallace’s postmodern collection of short stories for the stage, transforming the prose into a series of blistering monologues, and the result is rather electric.
We open on the cast huddled ominously around the stage, looming over the audience, sporting sinister animalistic masks. There is a thundering heartbeat smacking away, and behind the actors is a blazing red digital countdown – just like the one you’d find on a bomb. The play hasn’t even started yet (or has it?) and already we’re intrigued. Beneath the roaring incessant overture, we can hear the faint sobbing of one of the cast members. As the heartbeat softens, their desperate cries grow louder and louder.
And so the first monologue commences. The rest of the play follows suit: it is a collection of soliloquys (mostly by men, for obvious reasons) that delve us deep into the subconscious of this despicable array of human beings, each more revealing than the last. The speeches emerge more like diatribes – heated attacks on society, on humanity, but mostly – ironically – on themselves. These are men who boast about their sexual prowess, their proclivity for having a “good time”, and yet they stand grinning before us on the stage, completely alone.
The production was largely elevated by the efforts of its solid cast. Kieran Ahern’s pick-up artist running a self-help course for men is highly reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Magnolia (in fact it seems he’s even stolen Cruise’s hairdo from the film). Ahern renders this revoltingly misogynistic character an extremely watchable piece, filled with self-referential gags and sharp rapport with a fictional audience. Tom Pease barks like a disgruntled Gareth Keenan as a man who revels in the disgust he can cause with his “asset” – his mutilated arm that he covers beneath his jacket – and yet who is self-loathingly cynical of women who claim that they are not put off by it. And Tom Dowling is fantastically subtle as a calm and collected S&M enthusiast with a “gift” for coaxing women into collaborating in his bizarre fetishes, even if this speech felt a little stretched.
Each monologue is riddled with explicit and overtly sexual references and, in many ways, the men compete on a sexual level with one another (the female actors are shunned into near-obscurity). The man who suffers from Tourette’s-like outbursts right before the moment of climax is surely no worse off than the man who onanistically experiments with power tools. All of the men are disastrously pitiable, but none of them deserve our sympathy.
Some of the more abstract segments were difficult to decipher, but the production was laced with enough black humour to keep it afloat. All the while, of course, as these men tell us about their pathetic lives, the incessant heartbeat hammers above us, and the digital countdown plummets. What does this mean? Are the characters running out of time? Are they seconds away from exploding? Are their outdated beliefs, their misplaced sense of self-righteousness – the life and world they know – coming to a sudden, cataclysmic end? It’s not entirely clear.
The play offers all you’d expect: it’s an alarming array of tortured, wretched, hideous men. No, “hideous” is not the right term. These men transcend mere “hideousness”. These are, unequivocally, brief interviews with tragic men.