Are we more Gnit than not?

A 21st century narcissist in a search for Self.

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Three and a half of five stars

University of South Florida Theatre Building, Studio 120, 3837 USF Holly Dr., Tampa.

Through Jan. 28: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.

$25; $29, students, seniors and military.

click to enlarge Lauren Buglioli (Solvay) and Jon VanMiddlesworth (Gnit) consider the world. - Megan Lamasney
Megan Lamasney
Lauren Buglioli (Solvay) and Jon VanMiddlesworth (Gnit) consider the world.

Playwright Will Eno’s world is an off-kilter place where nobody’s truly at home, everyone’s been damaged, and every communication is necessarily misunderstood. What’s most surprising about this errorscape is how gently funny it is: again and again in Gnit, the Eno play currently offered in a fine production at Tampa Repertory Theatre, laughter trumps tears, and we find ourselves delighting in the kooky dialogue of characters who share only their inability to share.

Thanks especially to Jon Van Middlesworth’s sad sack performance as hapless Peter Gnit (the last name, we learn, was the result of a typo on his birth certificate), Gnit is consistently surprising and, in a melancholy way, charming. Like Eno’s most famous play Thom Pain (based on nothing), it insists that human life is a losing battle, and that we’re all overmastered by our incomprehensible circumstances. But, unlike Thom Pain, Gnit has a solution. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it quietly tells us that “I have no idea what this thing we’re going through is, but I do know that our job is to help each other through it.” We’re not utterly isolated, after all. Some people even manage to love.

Peter Gnit is not one of them. As portrayed by VanMiddlesworth, he’s an emotional tourist who can’t quite get the message that human connection can actually be a good thing. I haven’t been a big fan of VanMiddlesworth’s work over the years, but I think he — and director C. David Frankel — get this part absolutely right. VanMiddlesworth’s Gnit is fundamentally shallow, passive, incapable of introspection. He tells us repeatedly that he’s looking for his inner Self, but all the evidence suggests that he’d better use a microscope. As his mother, the superb Lynne Locher is mostly baffled by the fact that this lightweight is her offspring. And Jonelle Meyer, playing the bride whom Gnit steals from her groom on their wedding day, shows no more affinity for her abductor than for the man from whom he takes her. Like so many denizens of Eno’s universe, Meyer’s Bride is a nonspecific, accidental entity, as likely to attach herself to this man as to that. Meyer also plays other parts in the comedy, and each is as generic as the next. The implication is that for Gnit, at least, women are easily interchangeable and hardly worth a second thought.

Except, that is, for Solvay, portrayed beautifully by Lauren Buglioli. Buglioli's Solvay is the real thing, a warm, loving, faithful creature who’s surely too good for a jerk like Gnit. That Gnit finds it so hard to stay with her for the long haul is just more evidence that he’s truly his own worst enemy. There are two other actors (playing, like Meyer, several roles). Nick Hoop is top-notch, especially as a vengeful kinsman of the stolen bride, and, later, as a mysterious figure looking to harvest Gnit’s organs.

But the real discovery in the show is the sublime TR Butler, an actor whom I saw for the first time in this production. Butler plays a crowd — that’s right, a crowd — as if he were suffering from multiple personality disorder. To watch him switch from voice to voice, to talk to himself and answer back, is one of the chief joys of the Tampa Rep Gnit — and I can’t wait to see what else this actor is capable of. Gnit’s wanderings are nicely suggested by Lea Umberger’s terrific set, featuring a backdrop drawing of mountains and pyramids, and a floor-map of various unidentified countries and oceans. Britney Remy’s costumes are pointedly contemporary.

If the plot of Eno’s Gnit pretty much hews to his source — Ibsen’s Peer Gynt — the playwright’s dialogue is unmistakably his alone. It features excruciating honesty, as when Gnit’s mother asks him, “Can you tell me what you were born for?” and seemingly throwaway gems, as when Gnit mentions “life’s many doors and trapdoors.” Rhetorically, Gnit asks Solvay, “What are you afraid of?” and in true Eno style she responds with a list. “You remind me of someone: I don’t care who,” says Gnit, and another character complains, “What part of every word I say don’t you understand?” In Eno-world, everything’s just a little cockeyed, slightly asymmetrical, not quite on-base. It’s like that typo that determined Gnit’s name: another minor mistake in a mass of minor mistakes.

But that’s Eno’s world, and it’s one of the most original in American theater. Kudos to Tampa Rep for bringing it near — and rendering it onstage with intelligent professionalism.

Mark E. Leib's theater criticism for CL has won seven awards for excellence from the Society for Professional Journalists. His own plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in Chicago, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and the Tampa Bay Area. He is a Continuing Instructor at USF, and has an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he won the CBS Foundation Prize in Playwriting. Contact him here. 

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