Eric Overmyer engages in some pretty fancy word play in his 1985 play On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning. The play is a language-based fantasy about three women who travel from 1888 to 1955. They set out from Terre Haute to explore a tropical land called Terra Incognita and they end up at a nightclub in a city called Peligrosa.
The erudite dialogue uses an expansive vocabulary and techniques like alliteration and assonance. It takes a few minutes for our ears to realize the demands that the playwright is making, but when we do it’s fun to meet the challenge. One of the women comments on the linguistic acrobats from time to time in a way suited to the time travelers. “I have seen the future and it is slang,” she says. And Overmyer has some fun when the youngest woman occasionally produces malapropisms and then corrects them. “I am dieting to rock and roll. I mean determined, not dieting,” she says.
Still, clever as it is, the playwright’s word play becomes tedious after a while. Moreover, linguistic fireworks are not enough to make a satisfying play. On the Verge is not a drama. There are events, but they’re episodic. There’s no structured plot, only a story. The three women have no real motivations for their journey and as a result, the characters aren’t sharply defined.
The three women explore the tropics and realize that they’re being projected into the future. By osmosis – to use their own term – they assimilate phrases from the future without necessarily understanding them. And they find artifacts of the future without any explanation for them. An I Like Ike button instills a yearning to meet Ike (they never do).
The Attic Theater Company has just produced the play Off-off-Broadway and Overmyer enjoys a very nice production. The three actresses – Ella Dershowitz, Emily Kitchens and Monette Magrath – give solid performances, reserved without being dull. But they never really succeed in overcoming the weaknesses of the characterizations.
The fourth cast member, William John Austin, the only male actor, is terrific in eight roles. An actor playing several small roles often relies on indications and mannerisms. But Mr. Austin gives an emotionally grounded, natural performance in each role. His characters have specific biographies. His physical life is never false. He’s as believable as a teenage boy as he is as a lounge singer.
All right – one of his characters is an exception. He plays a young yeti the women chance upon. It’s the play’s most fanciful moment.
Laura Braza’s direction is precise and disciplined, never dwelling or rushing. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set makes no attempt to reproduce the jungle the women are exploring. It uses the sort of scaffolding we associate with a rock show. The choice doesn’t make sense since the travelers never break through 1955, but the contrast between the set and Emily Rosenberg’s Victorian costumes expresses the displacement of time travel.
The Attic’s On the Verge is, in the balance, a fine production. It’s an admirable company that chooses such demanding material.