June 22, 2022

Theater critic: “Gnit” by Will Eno

Of Gnit, at the Theater for a new audience.
Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Last year, while looking for productions that were on indefinite hiatus, I saw a photo of the Gnit together. When the shutdown order arrived, Will Eno’s existential comedy was only days away from opening at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience, so TFANA put the entire production on the back burner, leaving the set on stage. In the grainy cellphone photo, the phantom light from the theater made Kimie Nishikawa’s design look eerie, moonlit: a dark valley with two hills of mossy green rising sharply to the right and left, a backdrop of painted background and a wooden house from storybook. Bad things happen in fairy tales at night, I was thinking. What’s odd about the series, now resurrected after its long hiatus, is that a Rip Van Winkle tune still hangs around it. For its entire two-hour period and for a while afterward, it’s disorienting, making you feel like you’ve just woken up. How did we get here? How much time has passed? Gnit It might not have been a pandemic when it closed, but it’s definitely now open.

Long before production was interrupted, Gnit walked hand in hand with another world, that of Henrik Ibsen’s verse play in 1867 Pair Gynt. Eno didn’t make a narrow adaptation; he has taken more liberties than otherwise, and he pricks the excesses of the original. Ibsen’s difficult-to-interpret poem is a picaresque with folkloric overtones, containing 40 scenes about a scoundrel who travels the world avoiding all responsibility (he gets involved in the slave trade, founds a shady church, impregnates a young troll girl, etc.) only to return home to his long-suffering love Solveig, whose forgiveness saves him. At the time, it was an aesthetic breakthrough: a blow to Norwegian poetry, Kierkegaardian seriousness, and episodic maximalism. These last two make Pair Gynt a sort of chore to stage today. A chore too? The sticky stuff between Peer and Solveig. In the Ibsen, Peer finds peace at the breast, like a baby. “To the boy inside, you are a mother and a nurse!” he screams as she cradles him. Critically, objectively, thoughtfully… we vomit.

So you can understand why Eno’s version is moving away from Ibsen. Eno is a normcore surrealist – his works include masterpieces like The Realistic Joneses, Thom Paine (based on nothing), and Middletown –And a scholar of how modern discourse is, to paraphrase the Joneses, people who throw words back and forth. Eno therefore cut a large part of the core of the play to transform the central character into the American Peter Gnit. He’s done some devious mergers, like giving all the crowd scenes to a single character called The Town (an awesome David Shih), who has long conversations with himself. But Eno’s cuts are also deep. Gone are Ibsen’s rhyming couplets, the emphasis on salvation, any mention of Hell or divine retribution. The smushy end too. The two Pair Gynt and Gnit criticize individualism; in both rooms, any guy who says “I’m on a journey to discover … the authentic self” is a selfish creep. However, Eno makes his criticism without resorting to confessional arguments. His Gnit is a Passion Play without God, an atheist The pilgrim’s progression. More than the deliberately impassive delivery of the actors or the off-line humor of Eno, this explains the strange and flat effect of the series. The original Peer is a man playing tug of war with redemption. In this version, nothing is holding the other end of the rope.

Joe Curnutte plays Peter, a blond, cheerful and involved guy who is catnip for women. His mother (the beautiful Deborah Hedwall) knows him for a liar but loves him anyway; his beloved Solvay (Jasmine Batchelor) meets him minutes before he kidnaps a bride at her wedding, then she loses him after another a woman shows up with a baby of which he is the father. These two rival ladies are played by sublime comedian Christy Escobar, and many of the play’s wackiest jokes stem from how the company of six plays a cast of dozens, throwing themselves in and out of Ásta Bennie Hostetter. and Avery Reed. disguises. Jordan Bellow walks across, holding a bottle of milk, then crosses the other way a second later, as an entirely different character. “Who was that, you know? »Asks Pierre. “The handsome guy with the milk?” Below responds. After a while, all of this casting trickery seems like we are seeing through Peter’s own reckless eye, which perceives everyone who is not him as less than real. (It’s also a good excuse for people to do accents.)

Gnit is a strange evening at the theater, full of suspended understanding and puzzled laughter. Eno writes funny and sad jokes that come late enough that your mind doesn’t have time to have fun or get excited. These non-jokes often take the form of people saying something serious and the listener just doesn’t care. Peter tries to tell a reporter (again below) that he feels unhitched. “I have gone through my life as a person crossing a train station to stay out of the rain,” he says. The reporter, jabbing notes, listens with one ear. “Yeah, no, that’s pretty good, quite the poet – wow.” It’s going pretty fast, isn’t it. He pauses. “I have to run.” Gnit is the story of a soul’s journey through life, but it is mostly concerned with the awakenings of your fifties: realizing that you have been a rider with others, that nothing is an excuse for self-centeredness, that your mom won’t always be there to come back to. The show breaks its heart on this last point. Peter stands by his mother’s side as she dies and, for once, his chatting stills. “What are you saying? Someone says what? Peter asks, and the show takes an intermission because he just doesn’t want to continue.

Director Oliver Butler previously worked with Eno on the cover of his Thom Pain, and the vibe of this even darker room seeps through Gnit. Before the show starts, Butler keeps the room quiet. There is no music before the show, which means the audience is talking in low voices. Once the actors appear, they speak clearly but also softly. Butler doesn’t ask his actors to work for a laugh, so it all has a sort of shrugging suspicion – it’s the kind of show that makes you lean over, that trains you to watch it. It is a dark and silent spectacle. There’s even a mysterious character called The Middle play by a shadow. “Call me peace or death. I am what you cannot handle, ”said the shadow. “And I’m not really real, so you’ll never forget me.” Just try to live with me. I try to imagine what it would all have meant to me if I had seen Gnit as expected in March 2020. Would it have seemed so explicitly a self-flagellation on the self-esteem of white men? (Curnutte is the only white man on the show.) Would it have seemed funnier to me before a shadow engulfed the whole world? Maybe I will need to come back to it when I find myself a little more. Gnit is a satire on self-confidence nonsense, and right now he doesn’t have a lot of meat to eat. I couldn’t stop thinking about this set, dreaming all over the past year. The show has awakened – but our confidence is still there, somewhere in the phantom light, still asleep.

Gnit is at the Theater for a new audience until November 21.