In a Little Room, a delightful new black comedy by Pete McElligott, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Ten Bones Theatre Company, shows obvious influences of of Albee, Sartre and especially Beckett, but McElligott has his own voice. The play focuses on two primary characters, Manning (Jeb Kreager) and Charlie (Luis-Daniel Morales), who meet in a hospital waiting room on a very bad day. Initially, they try to conduct a whispered conversation to avoid waking another occupant, who is sleeping (David Triacca, who undertakes multiple roles), and then manage to wake him anyway with amusing ineptitude.
Before long, however, Charlie and Manning are engaging in debates about life, death, airplanes and cell phone calls, periodically leavened with nonsensical tangents. McElligott has a knack for turning from tragedy to comedy with just the smallest twist, and director Patrick Vassel keeps the overall action seamless. He also gives full weight to the small comic time bombs the author has planted. They may pass unnoticed, but they detonate laughter much later—a cup of coffee at the top of the show makes a welcome reappearance at a crucial moment.
The voluble Manning is a great flimflammer, careening from one topic to another and riffing on everything. “Do you just reset every two minutes?” Charlie asks him. The tall, strapping Kreager clocks a variety of emotions: a stunned sadness, a combative ebullience, and a quizzical skepticism among them. He’s argumentative and yet endearing, full of sympathy and yet overbearing. His size might make one worry for the more slightly built Charlie during their heated exchanges, but Kreager conveys a gentleness in his performance that manages to nullify the worries about his physical power. Both he and Charlie, affected deeply by the passing of family members, are trying to come to grips with the how to proceed.
To do that, they engage in prickly conversations about life and death, or embrace mundane pastimes to ward off the pain, just as Beckett’s tramps do in Waiting for Godot. Charlie thinks about a presentation at work, while Manning reads Cosmo Teen, which results in his giving Charlie—hilariously—a quiz for adolescent girls in which Charlie’s sex muddies the answers.
Manning: You catch eyes with a guy at a bar. The look he gives you seems to be saying: A.) “Are you the waitress?” B.) “I live right around the corner.” Or C.) “Let me buy you a drink, and maybe breakfast.”
Charlie: I love having breakfast at night. That’s amazing.
Manning: No, the breakfast would be the following morning. After sex.
Charlie: You don’t know that. He’s looking at me, not you.
Manning: I think it’s severely implied.
Every so often amid the comedy there is a memorable exchange with a deeper resonance, such as Manning’s description of life:
Life is billions of people doggy-paddling in the middle of the ocean. … Billions of folks. Surrounded by endless water. Doggy-paddling in place. Trying desperately to ignore the fact that eventually—they’ll get tired, they’ll get old, and they’ll go under. All of them.
During the morbid one-upmanship, the play turns more surreal by barely perceptible degrees. The grounding of Zachary Zirlin’s superbly detailed set—with a dozen black vinyl chairs, end tables, potted ferns and, of course, well-thumbed magazines—provides a solid reality for a viewer to settle into, so that when the hints of strange goings-on outside the room begin to be reported, one is bemused rather than alarmed by them.
By the climax, however, the crisis in the hospital is full-blown, and it’s a reflection of the two characters’ emotional crises as well. Even though one never sees any patients, and hardly any other characters, one accepts the danger, thanks to the author’s vivid descriptions and the help of skillful lighting from Katy Atwell and a richly imagined costume for a fireman (Triacca) by Evan Prizant.
Perhaps there could be a few minutes profitably shaved from McElligott’s play—there’s a bit of straining near the end—but it’s a pleasure to be in the company of a talented dramatist who has embraced comedy as the genre to deal with serious subjects and is so remarkably in control of his talent.
Ten Bones Theatre Company’s production of In a Little Room runs through Sept. 24 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd St., between Avenues A and B). Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets ($15) are available online at thewildproject.com.