by Hannah Bisewski
An evening at the Dougherty Arts Center for Ken Johnson’s Conversations While Dining Alone is a voyage into the brooding, lonely thoughts of the saddest people we know. Or maybe into those of just about everyone we know. These original monologues capture some of the ideas we have when we’re alone, the frustrations and the very ugliest thoughts that haunt our quieter moments.
Chuck Merlo enters and seats himself at a desk, places a McDonalds breakfast before him and begins an irritable rant into the cell phone pressed against his head. His steady monologue suggests there isn’t much of a conversation taking place. Merlo gestures at the wooden human figures around him, painted in all shades and fixed in all sorts of poses, referring to them as the “great unwashed,” the unshowered masses, homeless people whom he must serve in some capacity. He complains of their stupidity, their laziness, their sordid attempts at taking advantage of the welfare system. Only toward the end of his monologue do we understand that he might envy them in some sense, that maybe his character craves some level of acceptance and compassion from their community.
And so begins the parade of intimacy, texts fashioned entirely by Ken Johnson. Kayo Productions’ cast of eleven actors presents a total of twenty-four characters. Each provides a brief introduction and context and then expounds upon the most painful trope of the character’s existence. They range from sexually deprived wives to lonely custodians and murderous husbands -- the abusive and the abused. The light dims gently after each monologue and the company rearranges the featureless wooden figures. Sometimes the characters speak to the silhouettes, trying to bridge some communication gap and to make themselves understood. Of course, they fail. Sometimes the figures simply serve as a faceless crowd, a reminder that much of the interaction in which we engage every day ends up anonymous and unheard.
The bottom of the stage is lined with a cityscape in silhouette, suggesting that these characters are people we can find anywhere, in this city as much as in the next. And, sure enough, many of the issues the monologues confront are believable, even familiar, so much so that a few of the characters feel a bit archetypical or clichéd. Many of the performances hint at self-parody, though rarely with conviction or entirely enough to be understood as such (Sally Hultgren’s “A League of her Own”, performed at the end of the first act, is an exception: the story of a wealthy homemaker addicted to crack cocaine). Many of the performances are designed to make us uncomfortable at times, so that the audience isn’t sure whether to laugh or to keep a somber silence.
Conversations While Dining Alone is an exercise in humanity, in stepping into the shoes of another person, probably someone less fortunate than yourself, and trying on that plight for size. What you’ll find is a trove of compassion you might not have tapped in quite a while. Some of the issues are stark and much of the language is strong and raw (and rightly so), so children aren’t likely to enjoy the performance.
Conversations While Dining Alone plays at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $12.50. Student discounts are available.