Braxton Baker, Luverne Seifert and Sarah Agnew in “Little Eyes.”
Photo by Kevin McLaughlin
“Little Eyes” by local playwright Cory Hinkle runs at the Guthrie Theater through February 20. Set in post-9/11 suburbia, the show has drawn mixed reviews for its use of surrealism. Read the following excerpts to get a sense of the range of the reviews; click on the links to read each one in its entirety.
In the monologue that opens playwright Cory Hinkle’s Little Eyes, the latest production from Workhaus Collective now playing at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, an adolescent character named Martin expounds upon an ill-defined but pervasive sense of malaise that settled over suburbia in the wake of 9/11. Economic insecurities and family instabilities at home were now countered by menacing enemies abroad. Though not entirely new ground, the suburban anxiety depicted throughout Little Eyes possesses an urgency that dashes all false reassurances and propels the work toward a gripping conclusion.
Centered on neighboring cul-de-sacs in a suburban community, Little Eyes involves two very different pairs of characters, each privately cringing from closely guarded secrets and deeply repressed suspicions. In one home, married couple Steph and Mark live in a coiled state of emotional frigidness, their fragile coexistence poised to shatter at the nearest round of recriminations. In the other home, Judy spends her evenings fending off questions from her young son Martin about the whereabouts of his recently disappeared father. Though Judy insists that her husband, Martin’s father, has been spending his nights at the office, it’s obvious from the collection of empty beer bottles and hours of late night television that Judy’s explanation has little credibility.
The determined banality of both homes begins to come undone with the arrival of Gary, an eccentric stranger whose amicable demeanor does little to soften the intrusiveness of his inquiries. Claiming to be sent from the mayor’s office to document the town “as it is,” Gary has no compunction about prying into the most personal details of his subjects’ private lives. Before long, Gary’s cheerfully callous presumptions come to feel more indicative of his own self-righteous judgments than a supposed public relations campaign.
Cory Hinkle’s script probes suburban fears with fine-tuned precision, slowly evolving the tone from a darkly comic first half into an increasingly tense second. Rather than dwelling on surface eccentricities, Hinkle goes deep into the neurotic psychology of unfulfilling monotony, spousal betrayal, and parental worries. While such a theme could be unremittingly bleak, director Jeremy Wilhelm shows adept skill at keeping the prevailing atmosphere buoyed with gallows humor.
….Some might view the increasingly surreal second half as straying too far from reality, but the encountered dangers never feel less than genuine. Whatever our fears of the outside world, Hinkle’s work advises us to look inward. As perceived by Little Eyes, the worst of hazards may well reside within our very own homes.
Set in the months following 9/11 in a small American town that’s ahead of the curve, in that it’s already failing, Hinkle’s script has three sets of characters who form a continuum from realistic to absurd. There is a young mother whose husband just up and left, played by Sarah Agnew, who limns her character as believable stunned. Then there are the next-door neighbors, Steph and Mark, played by Maggie Chestovitch and Adam Whisner, who sleep under a painting of Jesus and have looping, nonsensical arguments with each other while Steph pretends to be pregnant by stuffing a pillow under her shirt. Finally, there is a large, loud-talking stranger in a cheap suit and an old camera, played by Luverne Seifert, who claims to represent the mayor and whose photography is bullying and occasionally sinister.
Each of these three groups could exist very comfortable in their own play, but Hinkle thrusts them into each other’s, where they bewilder the other characters, and risk bewildering the audience. The play is filled with signs and portents that seem meaningful but go unexplained, and the entire production is spotted with moments of bleak satire. It’s a play that refuses to explain itself, and the audience must not merely suss out the subtext, but some of the text. It’s very hard to tell whether this is a careful piece that made some commendable, albeit risky, decisions to challenge its audience, or if it’s an impulsive piece that relies on freighted hinting and glib suburban surrealism in the place of telling a story. Most of the local critics have so far assumed it is the latter. I’m not so sure.
Hinkle’s work, directed by Jeremy Wilhelm, would like to land in a sort of David Lynch surrealism; is it allegory, absurdist, realistic symbolism or just a dream? It’s refreshing to find drama that doesn’t always strike us on the nose, but Hinkle’s play wobbles among these prevailing realities and lacks internal consistency. Who’s playing for real? Who’s faking it? What’s happening?
…In fact, Hinkle’s play never achieves cohesion with its metaphors of surveillance, protection, invasion of privacy and anxiety. Its cynicism has no moral purpose; its comedy rarely invites us to invest an emotion in these people. They are objects of ridicule, not sympathy. Hinkle might be close to something with “Little Eyes.” Choosing a specific universe — and he seems to favor the possibilities of a less-literal world — might help shake out the chaff and find the nugget of his message.
In the program for Little Eyes, playwright Cory Hinkle mentions that one of the inspirations for his latest play was Gregory Crewdson’s surrealist portrait of modern American life, Twilight. Perusing the photographs in that collection does show a kindred spirit. In image after image, we find everyday scenes twisted and merged, to the point where yard work is done in the living room or a flooded bottom floor is as much a swimming pool as a reason to call the plumber.
…Though Hinkle’s work doesn’t entirely hold together, there are terrific moments sprinkled throughout, like the tableaus Crewdson creates. He’s aided by a terrific cast that works wonders with a string of difficult characters and an overall vision that pushes everyday absurdity and fears to the limit.
…We all can use a guide through the madness, which Hinkle steadfastly refuses to give any of the characters. By the end, even though much has happened and situations have changed, they are all as lost as in the beginning, just frozen in a fresh pose.
So, have you seen “Little Eyes?” If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.