Liza Birkenmeier’s The Hollower is the kind of play that tries to push the envelope in a variety of ways but ends up as effective as a pile of shredded paper. Perhaps that may be viewed as a tortured metaphor, but it’s nothing compared to the torturous path of what passes for plot in The Hollower. If you find yourself adrift after five minutes, you’ll be in full consternation when you leave.
Some things may be deduced. A black lesbian (her race may or may not be important; her sexuality seems to be) named Otto, who works at a center for seniors, has a home she shares with a young woman boarder/roommate named Bit (Reyna de Courcy), who dresses in outlandishly colored wigs, pink fuzzy coats and a tutu.
The play opens in Otto’s kitchen; dressed in medical scrubs, she is alone at the sink popping pills. She’s also listening to radio news reports of bombings and atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan; the pills may be needed to curb PTSD, though it’s not certain. That inference becomes more plausible when Otto is visited by a bearded fellow with one pig’s hoof and one normal—i.e., human—hand, and his minion, Missy (ToniAnne DiFilippo).
Pigman (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) proposes that Otto be the subject of a podcast he does. Although Otto treats Bit with considerable wariness, she embraces this idea—a further confirmation that Pigman is a hallucination. But with most of the characters either mentally challenged or hallucinatory, and the style either surrealism or absurdism, there’s little to be gleaned from the ensuing events.
Meanwhile, Bit wants to come to the senior home where Otto works to read to the residents. Otto (Patrena Murray) hasn’t requested permission for her to do that, and clearly she doesn’t intend to. Although Otto is aloof and a bit patronizing, Bit is oblivious, and dialogue often either goes nowhere or makes unexpected, improbable leaps:
Otto: I quit my job.
Bit: Did you walk into an office and say … like … ‘I quit?’
Otto: No, I called on the phone.
Bit: Have you ever had sex with a man?
At this question, the hitherto reticent Otto suddenly agrees to talk about the most intimate details of her life. Before long Bit is decorating Otto’s hair with bright red baubles that make her look like a racial caricature of a black child. That Otto would consent even to be touched by someone as weird as Bit strains credibility beyond the breaking point.
In fact, Bit is in the habit of making bizarre pronouncements. “Once in Copenhagen,” she says, “I bit my bicycle handlebar really freaking hard because of something I said that I regretted.” And Otto’s response is “I understand.” Really?
A third strand of plot involves a school project that Bit has embarked on with a dour fellow student named Wilkin Rush George III (Samuel Im). There’s a small joke about his name being backwards, but more important, the bizarre names may give an indication of a lightheartedness in Birkenmeier’s intentions—Dickens, Wodehouse, and W.C. Fields all used funny names for characters, after all. Any expectation of full-throated comedy doesn’t pan out; the action plunges into a relentless, forced absurdism.
Bit hits on Wilkin, who has no interest in her, only in their project. He’s designing Claymation figures for a history of prostitutes shipped to Canadian settlers in Canada in the 1600s that Bit has written a script for. At one point, she strips and physically assaults him, yelling, “Just stay here! Let her catch us!” and “Make her jealous!”
In the absence of coherent plot, the designers do some heavy lifting. You-Shin Chen’s cluttered kitchen set provides surprises with unexpected entry points for Pigman and Missy. Max Archimedes Levitt’s costumes and wigs for Bit fit her character; the colors and styles of the wigs constantly change, but it’s a running joke that loses steam. Carolyn Wong’s lighting flickers to signal visits by Pigman and Missy.
One can’t really judge performances in such a goulash, and director Kristy Dodson hasn’t given it coherent shape, but Im benefits from his character’s semblance of normalcy and a dry delivery. New Light Theater Project supports new drama, and its last production, Breeders, was a worthy choice. This one comes a cropper.
New Light Theater Project’s production of The Hollower runs through June 9 at the Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street, 4th Floor). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and information, visit newlighttheaterproject.com.