Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: A beautiful parcel of nature sits untouched in the middle of an urbanized area, beloved by a group of individuals who have a personal connection to it. A vague yet unmistakably sinister corporation is desperate to buy this land in order to raze it down, pave it over and fill it with factories, all in the name of profit and “progress.” The only thing standing in the way of this corporation is the aforementioned group of individuals, who are unwilling to budge in the face of bribery and falsehoods to abandon the land they love so dearly. At the end, capitalism is bested, the heroes succeed in preserving the land, and maybe the villains even learn something about the importance of preserving the natural world in the process.
In “The Plot,” the newest production by award-winning playwright Will Eno, this familiar dichotomic tale of nature versus industry creates the stimulating — though predictable — basis for a mediation on life, death, and love. Currently showing at the Yale Repertory Theater until December 21, I attended its opening preview performance over Thanksgiving break and was able to witness the cast and script in their freshest and rawest state. Though the play’s title is a multifaceted pun based on the multiple definitions of the word (as a plan or scheme, the main events of a story, or a small piece of ground marked out for a specific purpose), “The Plot” is not so much about the plot itself as it is a character study that dives deep into the motivations of its small yet lovable cast.
Set in the lush landscape of the fictional Briarwood Cemetery, “The Plot” focuses on Joanna Morse, played by Mia Katigbak, and her husband Richard, nicknamed “Righty,” played by Harris Yulin, an elderly couple contending with Righty’s Alzheimer’s. Righty’s deteriorating memory and haphazard decisions are a constant source of fatigue for Joanna, with her exhaustion leaving her cynical but still determinately loving towards her husband.
Having recently bought himself an expensive plot for a grave in the cemetery, Righty is prepared for his final resting place. His frequent jaunts through the graveyard are the few moments that make him “finally feel calm” through his Alzheimer’s. This purchase is the last complication in the plans of real estate agents Donna, played by Jennifer Mudge, and Tim, played by Stephen Barker Turner. These agents are prepared to do whatever it takes to buy the gravesite back from the Morses and finish their deal to sell the cemetery and turn it into an industrial park. Donna and Tim have a complicated relationship of their own, as Tim’s unhappy marriage has led the two to a history of unfulfilling intimacy that they both seem interested in pursuing only out of some sense of desperation. These two couples quarrel between and amongst each other, proving — and failing to prove — their love in ways both comical and despondent. Through their conversations, the characters come to new realizations about what they want out of life. The conversations help redefine their perceptions of the truth of the world around them.
Complimenting the emotional complexity of “The Plot,” the physical space of the world around its characters demands intense perception in its own right. Just a moment spent gazing at the set will easily convince you of why it is a space which ought to be preserved in the fiction it inhabits. The slice of the Briarwood Graveyard which the audience is shown feels like just a small portion of a vast and beautiful landscape. Every section of the stage is filled with trees and coated with moss. Ivy creeps up the walls of a dilapidated stone building and around the pillars of a wide gazebo. There are gravestones, naturally; Righty’s is the largest and most pristine. And yet, the manmade forms shrink beneath the all-encompassing greenness of the set pieces. The backlit screen projects the colors of a fluctuating sky, filtering through day and night in time-lapse to show the passing of days between scenes. There is no music outside of these scene changes, only the light chatter of birds and insects muffled by dialogue. It is easy to see why it brings Righty such a sense of peace, why he is so reluctant to sell his gravesite here for a space elsewhere.
Though it may seem obvious at the beginning which side the audience is supposed to be rooting for, “The Plot” comes packaged with a series of revelations that make the ultimate question of “who is in the right?” more difficult to answer than at first glance. The decision to preserve nature may feel like the clear moral choice, but the characters’ motivations for doing so blend the black and white ethical scale into a veil of grey which hovers over “The Plot’s” lush green set into the production’s final moments. Even with these moral dilemmas at play, “The Plot” progresses through its story in rapid-fire beats of humor and sincerity. The constant emotional fluctuations keep the narrative lively and the audience laughing, but do not feel rushed or out of place within the realm of Eno’s witty dialogue, as each characters’ line bounces off the last with perfect comedic grace. Never feeling tense, “The Plot” still concluded with a final scene that left major questions about the future of its characters unanswered. Attending the post-show conversation, I learned that the audience had interpreted the ending a wide variety of ways, which I thought was summarized best by one audience member who, like me, enjoyed the play’s lack of clarity because “things aren’t what they seem, and neither are people. That’s what life is like.”
Even as it tackles elements of existentialism, environmentalism, and moral complexities beneath the guise of its humor, “The Plot” is vocal, even just through its title, of the fact that it is no replication of the reality of life — nor is it trying to be. Still, Eno’s masterful writing and the gorgeous set presents a world that could almost feel real, and, at the end of the day, presents its audience with questions worth pondering, as they have very real consequences indeed.
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