There is something shamefully exhilarating about watching crazy women teeter at the edge of the deep end. Kristen Kosmas’s new play, Hello Failure , a clever and funny exploration of the ways people cope with loneliness and introspection, gives the audience this kind of detached perspective, allowing one to consider the way it feels looking in versus looking out. While watching others in pain is perversely cathartic, it is hardly comforting. In ways charming, witty, and sad, Hello Failure covers the vast and confusing mental landscapes of seven submariners’ wives. The play follows the women’s intertwining lives as they struggle with a profound existential loneliness that seized their lives with their husbands’ extended departures. They are all disturbingly quirky, and yet often seem like robots attempting to perform scripts that rarely work. At regular meetings the women struggle to define their lives so that they may live in the world with relative success. Sadly, their efforts mostly fail. The women share the stage and their problems throughout, but cannot reach self or joint understanding. Their disjointed experiences give the play its structure, which means that there is little plot development, but the dialogue and the actors are clever enough to sustain the show.
Echoing the disjointed emotional states of the characters, director Ken Rus Schmoll moves his actors around a stage divided to simultaneously present scenes in several locations: a cramped bathroom, a car, and a room in a museum. Through the seamless shifting between breakdowns and near-breakdowns, the audience gets to experience something like living inside a fractured mind. The show revolves around the chatter that occurs when people are waiting, but this idea is neither as simple nor as innocent as it might sound. Occasionally, one longs for something to happen, just as these women do. The fact that nothing changes reinforces the agony of waiting.
At first, the play’s overt means of presenting disjointed beauty can be frustrating (it’s as though the characters are too cognizant of their performances). However, the play takes a welcome turn when we leave indecipherable monologues for the dynamic meeting juxtaposed with Rebecca’s mad dialogue with a vibrant ghost (a masterfully absurd Matthew Maher). As Rebecca, Kosmas assumes the toughest role. Though Rebecca’s madness can seem contrived, her speeches are not without lovely and unique observations, made more touching by Kosmas’s childlike excitement.
That a play about suffering and emotional breakdowns is so funny is a testament to Kosmas’s fantastic and whimsical sense of humor. The playwright has a wonderful way of finding the humor in casual patterns of speech; idioms are distorted by their presence in this alternate reality and grammar is is playfully interrogated. The women occupy a quirky, but devastating other place defined by deceptively barbed chatter, tenuous social connections, and a handbook filled with Soviet-style advice on how to manage the “stages of deployment.”
Amidst such strange surroundings, it would be easy for an actor to lose touch with the audience. Delightfully, all of the actors inhabit their characters with a level of naturalness that is engaging and perfectly in tune with the tone of Kosmas’s script. Indeed, the actors are so well in tune with each other that they can recite the same monologue simultaneously. When Rebecca and Kate (played with aggressive jubilance by Joan Jubett) share the stage and a speech, their different approaches to the same script demonstrate their subjective, unique pains, despite the seemingly obvious similarities between their experiences.
In some moments, the cleverness of the script is distracting, and the show is self-conscious to the point of philosophical detachment. However, the concluding speech, a joint monologue performed in unison by the entire cast and directed at the audience, is a self-conscious, but bold and effective way to tie together some of the previously scattered messages about anguish. Kosmas uses each character’s specific plight to address the feelings of disconnectedness that plague modern life, and unites them at the end to attribute the problem to self-obsession. The final scene suggests that the most healing shift could be away from the self, which might be the only way to ignore troublesome thoughts about how one “fits into the scheme of things.”
Hello Failure initially seems like it will be an absurd fantasy: Rebecca writes a letter to a dead man, a submarine inventor named Horace Hunley, who later makes a magical (and hilarious) appearance in her bathroom. But as much as these women dream, as much as they try to take part in alternate impossible worlds, they are, pitifully, in a world where men cannot fly and submarines sink, where the house does not fall apart even as you do. In such a world, the question arises, how does one cope? Could the answer be so simple and so devastating as one cannot?