The Debate Society's latest play, The Eaten Heart, is based on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, in which people fleeing the Black Death tell each other stories. It's sort of like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, except Boccaccio's storytellers breeze through 100 stories in just 10 days. With Eaten Heart, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen have conceived a more contemporary Decameron, set in the 1970s, where multiple characters intermingle in and around a highway motel. The two playwrights have taken Boccaccio's initial idea and converted it into a "shared lucid dream" that functions with its own bizarre logic. Bos and Thureen also play all the characters—among them, a magician who unintentionally shorts out a renaissance festival employee's TV, a man in special "invisibility underpants" who stalks the halls for women, and a jealous husband who checks into the room next to his wife and her lover. Even when the story lines don't cross, we often see two stories staged simultaneously in separate rooms.
Most of these stories offer plots with a fulfilling setup, development, and payoff. In the scene where Bos plays a traveling radio minister's wife, for instance, we are cleverly shown that she is unhappy with her husband and her perpetual life on the road. That way, when a short-shorts-wearing pizza guy (Thureen) shows up to deliver her lunch and then decides to go for a swim, we understand why he would make an impression on her, and why she would be willing to go to such bizarre lengths—like ordering a second pizza—to spend more time with him.
In other cases, however, the story lines are not as satisfying. The story of a girl who seems to be in love with a potted plant ends shockingly, but it's for shock value only.
Director Oliver Butler clearly had numerous challenges in mounting this script: two actors playing 15 roles, multiple stories that are not directly connected to each other, and a motel that must double for a lounge club and then triple for a family's dining room. But Butler's expert staging ties all these separate actions and locales together. At the climax of one story line, a motel room's bed is covered in dirt and then abandoned. In the next scene, the maid removes the soiled linens while she talks to the motel repairman. Ultimately, the bed is moved and becomes a dining room table at the end of the play. You can see Butler's skill at work in these stage transformations and neat transitions, which denote both the passage of time and a change of space.
Butler also wisely chose talented designers whose work nicely supplements the energy and complexity of his staging. Amanda Rehbein's scenic design is versatile and meticulous, with the stage consisting of one full "motel room" and two "half-rooms." The rooms are more or less the same with only small, believable differences, but the concept allows Bos, Thureen, and Butler to create some believable illusions, like having one character interact with another "invisible" character who is in the room's unseen half.
Mike Riggs's admirable lighting design is particularly supportive of the script's more dramatic and quirky elements, like a very realistic lightning storm halfway through the play that knocks out the motel's power, or an overhead spotlight that comes up when Bos is playing a lounge singer, indicating a change in both mood and scenery.
Costume designer Sydney Maresca and sound designer Nathan Leigh deserve commendation as well. With only two performers, Maresca's costumes are crucial in making the characters immediately distinguishable from each other. Thureen's magic bikini briefs, in particular, are hysterical and perfect. Maresca also uses wigs to distinguish the characters: even when Bos is out of her Renaissance-fair outfit, we recognize the character by the large braid in her hair. Leigh's vivid sound design completes the production, with peppy background music on the radio, fake period commercials on the TV, and the sounds of distant characters swimming in the motel's pool.
Bos and Thureen's performances are wide-ranging and always entertaining. In the pizza guy scene, they show they can be goofy yet genuine, and the result is very sweet. In a final scene at a dinner table, they play their characters' humdrum marriage completely naturally. At first, their understatement seems comical and baffling—we wonder how long we can watch these two make superficial small talk over their meal. But as the scene progresses and we learn the truth behind this quiet little dinner, amusement turns to horror. Given the revelation at the end, Bos and Thureen's subdued performance here is chilling.
Although The Eaten Heart is a well-acted play of significant depth, it is the surface aesthetics—the slick staging and the flawless production design—that elevate it above other Off Off Broadway productions. This is the second play, after last year's mesmerizing Snow Hen, in the Debate Society's trilogy based on literature about the Black Death. After two splendid productions of fascinating new plays, I'm eager to see what this company comes up with next.