The Yale Summer Cabaret started its 2014 season with a torture-themed comedy by Christopher Durang (Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, which closed last week). It now has gotten darker still with the abduction-themed drama A Map of Virtue.
Both of these plays are really romances. They’re just cynical about the modern state of such romantic virtues as love, trust and honor. Seems you can’t trust anyone these days.
These two plays, despite their shared cynicism about contemporary civilization and their similarly violent theatrical impulses, have pulled the hardy SumCab repertory troupe in completely different directions style-wise. The Durang comedy was hyper-physicalized farce. A Map of Virtue, which won an Obie Award for its original New York production at the playwrights collective 13P in 2012, is so poised and languid that it seems more like an illustrated short story than a play. It has a narrator. It announces its scene titles/chapter headings. It contains much more talk than action.
The calm, mannered approach is a sound one. It allows director Luke Harlan to build unbearable suspense out of (undepicted) images of a bird attack, a vandalism incident and a chance cafe encounter that could be either a meet-cute moment or the foreshadowing of something horrible. But Courtney’s script doesn’t exactly play out like a conventional melodrama. It’s, like I said, a metaphor for modern romance. It’s full of deliberate twists and turns that are more confounding than compelling. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on a character or a situation, A Map of Virtue undoes all your expectations. At times it seems willfully, transparently deceptive, deliberately obtuse. You end up taking away simply what you want to. Eternal sense of dread? Hope for the future? Awkward blip in the otherwise ordered universe? Your choice.
Certain themes suggest the anxieties of young adults in today’s alienating city environments; chance encounters that lead to fear, rage and confusion; the promise of better parties outside the city; children.
There are also fantasy elements. Actress Ariana Venturi, who is essentially playing an inanimate object, is an effective narrator for this dour and downbeat adventure. Not having to interact with the fraught lead players (Annelise Lawson, who has the scared eyes of a Hitchcock heroine, and Ato Blankson-Wood, who has the difficult task of playing emotionally open and creepily evasive at the same time), Venturi finds her own pacing and is the liveliest thing on the stage.
Lawson and Blankson-Wood get a monologue-laden first scene that gives their characters depth and complexity, so that when the play turns into a kidnapping you know it’s really about much more than that. As a fellow victim/lover, squeaky-voiced Aubie Merrylees offers exquisite comic relief.
Full of abstractions and impatiently abrupt plot twists, A Map of Virtue is also startlingly conventional, played out on a plain wooden stage in a boxy set-up (scenic design by Christopher Thompson). For such an intimate modern work, it requires an old-fashionedly large cast of seven to make it happen.
Certainly on the dour side for summer theater, and definitely not a date play, A Map of Virtue has a number of attributes that make it a soul-stirring entertainment. A Map of Virtue plays at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 York St., through Sunday.