Both Lynchian & Eno-esque, PLANO Swirls Ever Inward

Photo by Elke Young

If you’ve ever been to Plano, Texas, you’ll have some sense of what playwright Will Arbery is wrestling with in his new play, also called Plano, which runs through May 11th at the Connelly Theater in the return engagement of the Clubbed Thumb production (first seen in short form as part of Winterworks in 2018, then in full for Summerworks of the same year).

Actual Plano (my interpretation): A conflagration of corporate headquarters, separated into campuses, each with a few hotels. Chinese restaurants in strip malls. Miles and miles of on and off ramps, no sidewalks. A place of emptiness, but also – strangely – a sort of peaceful solitude. There is so much nothing there that it turns into something.

The Play’s Plano (my interpretation of Will Arbery’s interpretation): A blank place that (men?) go to split into pieces. A state of mind, a slide into subconscious, an implosion of self that results in repopulation. A place to die? As an individual, perhaps – but then one is reborn into fragmentary versions of one’s self and redistributed across the country, each fragment haunting  – specifically, in this play – a woman.

The play itself features a rather dense environment, reminiscent both of the nightmare logic of a David Lynchian world coupled with the bleak existential humor of Will Eno, but played at hyper-speed, as though the inhabitants of the play popped a couple of Ritalin pills just before the lights went up. The main structure presents three sisters (played by Crystal Finn, Miriam Silverman, and Susannah Flood) who are reckoning with the fragments of the men (Cesar J. Rosado, Ryan King, and Brendan Dalton) in their lives. One is about to be married (to a probably gay man who is always “going to Plano” and never seems to fully return). One is about to be divorced (by a man who gets lost in Plano while simultaneously appearing in her home as a zombie-version of himself who can’t be killed). One is “married to God,” but then gets haunted by a faceless ghost-man who keeps her contained onstage in a state of limbo and confused sainthood. Eventually, a fourth woman – the mother of these sisters (played by Mary Shultz) – makes unexpected and delightfully weird landfall, but seems to be running from either a dead husband or all of mankind. The conditions surrounding all this are not made explicit, but they don’t have to be – the stakes are quite clear regardless of the actual situation. This sense of clarity amid abstraction holds largely true throughout, a credit to director Taylor Reynolds, who has grounded each performance and moment with enough reality that the continuous river of frenetic verbiage doesn’t untether itself from the action.

The key literary device that Arbery utilizes is a cross between a cross-fade and smash cut (in cinematic terms). It’s both blurry and abrupt – whenever anyone says the word “later,” the play then jumps immediately forward to that later point and continues. This allows for days, weeks, and years to vanish, and disallows any letup in the pace. If life is a race, all the characters here are lagging behind the leader, just hoping to keep up and find space to breath amidst the density of inevitable heartbreak that comes along with living. This constant rush also creates a world that swirls inward, though – it’s sometimes a little too easy to gloss over, as it becomes apparent that the narrative logic is not necessarily what’s driving the action. But if not that, then what? The space between that question and the fact that we never quite determine what exactly is behind all the rattling doors and lurking underneath the porch helps create and maintain the unsettled sense of a nightmare. The stakes remain clear, and the men are creating the stakes.

Although along those lines, I’m not sure what to take away from it all from a gendered standpoint (particularly the use of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s very large and very male book “My Struggle: Book One” as a temporary murder weapon, which just feels too easy at this point.) The internal disturbance within the men’s mental state made external via Plano is uncomfortably recognizable to me, and there’s a strong sense of male loathing and destructivity throughout. I am left to wonder though, if not Plano, where do the women go?

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