Can we, in the wake of shootings at Virginia Tech and Newtown, laugh now at the idea of a campus gunman? The answer seems to be yes, under the bizarre conditions of William Missouri Downs’ “The Exit Interview.”
If he took any element in the play seriously, the idea of a masked killer would be too horrifying to contemplate. But the shooter fits into this crazy (very crazy) quilt of glib priests, fundamentalist scientists (I’ll explain that later), beleaguered academics, smug anchormen and cheerleaders who introduce the play by chanting “O-F-F-E-N-S-I-V-E! Offensive! Offensive! This play is offensive!”
The strange thing is that it isn’t. I suspect the one man who walked out on opening night at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte was unamused, not angry. Downs is like a kind of anti-Cupid, shooting venom-tipped arrows in every direction: He doesn’t want us to take sides, except perhaps against the pervasive stupidity he seems to see all around.
Two of the six actors remain the same throughout: Joe Rux, who plays fired lecturer Dick Fig, and Kelly Mizell, who plays eternally patient exit interviewer Eunice.
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We learn that a shooter has been spotted, and distant gunfire confirms the report. As it becomes less distant, Dick and Eunice debate the purpose of their lives, which they expect to be cut short.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen people (played by Lauren Dortch-Crozier, Jennie Greenfield, Brandon Smalls and Lee Thomas) float in and out as ditsy, hapless, obsessive or otherwise unsympathetic folks from the past or present.
Downs both employs and mocks Bertolt Brecht’s theater of alienation. (Brecht wanted audiences to think, not become emotionally involved with characters.) At the slightest sign we might feel warmly toward Dick or Eunice, he interrupts the tale.
Twice he appears in videos, allegedly from the Wyoming woods, to give the actors “rewrites.” Performers assume German accents, do plays-within-the-play, hold pseudo-debates about religion or science. (Two professors, squabbling over the building blocks of the universe, curse each other’s research facilities and call down plagues of blood and locusts on their foes.)
Characters address us to bemoan cuts in NEA funding, explain why theater needs product placement the way films do – shout-out to Diet Coke! – and explain that the solution to these campus shoot-outs is to arm every last professor and student.
Yet in this comedy, which is getting a rolling world premiere via the National New Play Network, even a valuable epiphany doesn’t lead to happiness: The character who gets one slips back into self-delusion, put off by the truth.
There’s no person here to root for – even Dick is insensitive – and no philosophy to embrace, other than the notion that most of us prefer to cling to faiths of various kinds than deal with reality. If that idea isn’t offensive, this may be your bitter cup of tea.