Eric Overmyer, having cranked out TV episodes between writing plays, must feel something for his hard-working wordsmiths in "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe," in its West Coast premiere this weekend at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage. One of the play's big problems is that Overmyer seems more concerned with writing some clever theater rather than letting his feelings show.
The staff of ghost writers in "In Perpetuity," led by Christine Penderecki (Mary Anne Dorward), strike us as serious folk, stuck working for Montage, a publishing house that specializes in books on conspiracy theories. The original writers have the theories, but haven't a clue in the writing department. That's where Christine and her colleagues come in, to polish things up.
Fellow staffer Lyle Vial, for example, is deep into a tome titled "Geronimo," which sends him down the murky alleys of global chain letters ("whatever you do, DO NOT break this chain . . . ") and the alleged Japanese fascination with "Jewish money." Dennis Wu is in his own swamp hole of a book, but it's never clear what.
Saddled with a morass of research notes and prose by a certain Ampersand Qwerty (Overmyer knows no bounds when it comes to character names), Christine is drawn into creating, as Qwerty calls it, "a nonfiction novel" called "The Yellow Emperor," inspired by the Fu Manchu pulp-novel series, on the coming takeover of the West by the Asian hordes from the East.
People in this play tend to work best at night, when something invisible could be Out There. Paulie Jenkins' lighting, Cliff Faulkner's set and Nathan Birnbaum's film-like sound design create a world of cold corporate offices, lonely apartments, murky workrooms and foggy back streets. The late '80s noir drips off Roberta Levitow's production like blood down a knife blade.
It almost makes you want to look behind you, but the designed slickness catches you short. Things are getting the same kind of surface attention from Overmyer. Before "In Perpetuity" is over, the power to project fear--what the play is, in part, about--dissolves to a pose.
Overmyer is working in novelist Thomas Pynchon's nocturnal zone of paranoia-as-virus and deliberately flat characters, where the worst apocalyptic horrors are perhaps not made manifest, but that doesn't mean they're not coming. There's in fact little innovation in this play that hasn't been worked and reworked by the Pynchons and sub-Pynchons of recent American fiction; it's only that theater is late in coming to the style.
It's a style, though, that resists working on stage. For a play full of wise-cracking, cynical wordsmiths, "Universe" strikingly lacks a real sense of humor. (Hearing Lyle reel off the best-selling conspiracy theories is about as funny as it gets.) More importantly, any sense of dread of the outside world working on our insides vanishes every time we're told about--not shown--the conspiracies. Editor-publisher Maria Montage doesn't take any of this very seriously. Why should we?
Just when it appears that Overmyer might be proving his point by playing formalistic tricks on us--for example, that Montage itself is a fiction, a front for another operation--he gets serious. Christine, learning that one of the Montage novels has actually inspired a white supremacist group to action, must destroy the notes and manuscript before it's too late.
We've been in cynic's land, alas, too long to care. Offstage cadres of racists are too abstract a bunch to cast as antagonists, especially in a play populated by writers and editorial people. The play's politics about racist sentiments are undermined by Overmyer's indecisive dramatization.
Tzi Ma's Dennis is the show's font of life, clearly a writer of bigger, better things than this. (Why don't we ever seem him writing?) Like most of the cast, Ma cleverly doubles, in his case as a (sinister? benign?) Vietnamese merchant. Annabella Price, as Montage's snide assistant, a Russian spy in Christine's novel and a medieval fool (we won't bother explaining that one), has a chance to show her stuff, and she does with tongue firmly in cheek.
Robert Schenkkan's Lyle makes you feel for a guy with an overworked imagination. Dorward's ingratiating Christine, because the most earthbound, is most hurt by Overmyer's lack of conflict. Hal Landon Jr., never a surface actor, has only surfaces to play with here. But when Pamela Dunlap, as Maria and as an agent, talks about "power lunches," you can smell it.
At 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, on Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Saturdays, 3 and 8:30 p.m., Sundays 3 and 8 p.m., until Oct. 23. Tickets: $20-$26; (714) 957-4033.