What could possibly renew the sense of excitement around a one-person show? We have seemingly seen and heard it all by now — surely every embarrassing personal detail and excruciating family revelation has been staged at this point. Likewise, all the riffs, attitudes, and stances have been mined for everything they’re worth. Yet somehow writer Will Eno has managed to uncover a new vein of interest in this most basic and ancient of theatrical forms. In Title and Deed, a new comic monologue that was written for Conor Lovett, the actor who performed it last Thursday at Rubicon Theatre, Eno crafts a persona that’s both likable and mysterious, equally charming and strange. As a result, the play leaves its viewers with the feeling of having heard not just a single character but the voice of a whole new way of thinking about the theater.
The piece begins simply, with Lovett, known simply as a man with no specific name, coming onstage carrying a small backpack. His opening lines set the tone, which is one of bemused sincerity. “I’m not from here,” he announces. “I guess I never will be. That’s how being from somewhere works.” The piece never completely settles the question of where he is from, and, although the man spends a substantial amount of time describing his homeland, it never resolves into any place that one could recognize. The conventional gestures toward describing a country, and a way of life, are made, but there’s something off about what gets put forward. For example, here’s one description he gives of his home — notice how quickly it gets away from him. “It’s just a little thing, my country — down by the sea, roughly, seasonal enough, a small population, the chief exports sarcasm and uric acid. No, but I’m proud of her, the old girl, the very old woman. The lying, dying senile old mess, so far away, her milky eyes trying to focus on anything and her mouth opening and closing for some reason other than to speak.” And so it goes throughout this mesmerizing hour of theater. Familiar rhetorical strategies like the personification of a country, one’s homeland, collapse under their own weight, or swing open like trap doors, dropping the imagination into an eerie free fall.
Lovett’s performance is absolutely top-notch and full of disarming gestures that ingratiate this admittedly odd individual, even as he persists in deconstructing the repertoire of signs by which he might be known. Yet despite this habit of verbally dismantling his own claims, the man nevertheless does deliver several memorable descriptions. His account of his own birth has an existential piquancy, and his story of the time he spent living with a family that may or may not have been the Millers gets one of the night’s biggest laughs. “The arrangement was that I’d help out around the house,” he explains, “but I didn’t, so they asked me to leave, and I left. Good-bye to the Millers.” If that doesn’t sound particularly funny, so be it. As with much of this show, the humor is in the delivery, the rapid reversals of expectation, and the sudden compressions of narrative that leave the audience off balance and breathless, waiting for the man to start up again.
Rubicon has a long-standing relationship with Lovett and the director of the piece, his wife, Judy Hegarty Lovett. We should be grateful that this magnificent team, now associated not only with the extraordinary legacy of Samuel Beckett but also with the great promise of Eno, continues to frequent our area to present such challenging and exciting work.