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David Rabe misses the mark in uber-absurdist ‘Cosmologies’

Ensemble member Kenny Mihlfried stars as Eruc in The Gift Theatre’s Midwest premiere of David Rabe’s "Cosmologies." | Claire Demos Photo

Ensemble member Kenny Mihlfried stars as Eruc in The Gift Theatre’s Midwest premiere of David Rabe’s "Cosmologies." | Claire Demos Photo

For sheer programming chutzpah, let’s give it up for The Gift Theatre, which for its three shows of 2018 sandwiched “Hamlet” — inarguably one of the great plays in the English language — in between two contemporary, largely abstract, and exceptionally language-forward American works.

The first was “Hang Man,” a daringly metaphorical take on the state of black men in America, replete with a harness-suspended actor with a noose around his neck.

When: Through Dec. 9
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $35-$50
Info: thegifttheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission

And now the theater presents “Cosmologies,” a truly obscure play by the prominent, Tony-winning writer David Rabe, who joined the storefront theater’s ensemble after teaming with the Gift, and its artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton (who also directs here), on the impressive world premiere of “Good for Otto” in 2015.

“Cosmologies” is Rabe in pure absurdist mode, contemplating the meaning of the universe with intentional illogic. Unfortunately, he pours on the philosophizing but proves over-stingy in the storytelling.

The play begins in a dingy Chicago hotel room. Eric (Kenny Mihlfried, acing the character’s intellectual geekiness) has forced his friend Milt (Gregory Fenner) to escape with him from the boondocks to the city, where Eric hopes to begin his life adventures — what he calls his “terrestrial ruckus.” But Eric quickly finds himself in a situation out of a pulp novel, set up with a saucy but friendly prostitute named Teddy (Darci Nalepa, nicely sweet and sour), and then stabbed by unpredictable and menacing pimp Richard (James D. Farruggio, who comes off like a figure out of a Tarantino film).

We switch from the hotel room to a small apartment, and from some basis in reality to nearly none at all. Eric has ended up on the couch of the married Teddy and Richard. Eric launches into efforts to create a complete cosmology of the universe, a “model of reality” that will explain everything and provide its ultimate meaning. All he needs, he says, is a telescope, which eventually arrives as well, oversized and gold.

Eric becomes a roommate and a pseudo-son, adding Oedipal oddness to the more lustful scenes with Teddy, which of course infuriate Richard, who becomes an exaggerated take on the demanding father-figure, walking around largely in a bathrobe and boxer shorts with hearts on them. Rabe, in an early work “Sticks and Bones,” has previously up-ended the idea of the “Ozzie and Harriet” all-American family, and he satirizes family life even more viciously here.

Ensemble members Darci Nalepa and Kenny Mihlfried in a scene from The Gift Theatre’s production of "Cosmologies." | Claire Demos Photo

Ensemble members Darci Nalepa and Kenny Mihlfried in a scene from The Gift Theatre’s production of “Cosmologies.” | Claire Demos Photo

The most obvious explanation for all this is that it occurs in Eric’s mind after he slips into unconsciousness following his injury. And that’s certainly a fair and never challenged interpretation. The problem is that it’s neither especially illuminating nor helpful.

There are two things fundamentally missing. The first, most obvious, absence is a strong narrative — or to be honest, even much of a weak one. A plot point arrives with an escaped convict (John Kelly), wearing prototypical convict clothing. A pair of cops (Martel Manning and Hannah Toriumi) come looking for him. But there is no clear movement in any particular direction regarding the relationships or Eric’s evolving philosophy.

The other major absence is social context. Rabe has never been a naturalistic writer. He’s always expressed the inner hauntings of humans with fanciful, expressionistic fervor. But he has also grounded his plays in identifiable social milieus: the Vietnam era, with all its divisiveness and fear, for a play like “Streamers;” or the 1980s coke-addled Hollywood of “Hurlyburly;” or even the high-stress world of a clinic helping the mentally ill in “Good for Otto.” “Cosmologies,” on the other hand, could be set nearly anywhere at any time, giving it a problematic vagueness to accompany its surrealism.

Rabe gifts the performers with some rich dialogue — his language never falters. And the play is fitfully funny in its meta-theatricality. Richard, for example, takes Eric’s toy gun with great seriousness, and when a Priest (Fenner again) is asked whether he can resuscitate the dead, he responds, deadpan, “I believe I can, wait here I’ll be right back.” Thornton and his cast mine the imagery and humor while never being anything but fully committed to the offbeat goings-on.

A more stylistically aggressive approach, together with more visual imagination, could perhaps have lifted this piece and given it the aesthetic oomph even the most abstract work requires. But that’s asking a lot for a play that never feels grounded in sufficient story or context. As is, “Cosmologies” comes off as a bit of a slog.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.