To guess at the meaning of everything…it’s an endeavor that may be as futile as nailing down the essence of The Meaning of Almost Everything. Pondering the imponderable may be a familiar old exercise in any medium, but it feels shiny new in playwright Jeff Daniels’s latest comedy, now in its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. In this delightfully enigmatic production, director Guy Sanville draws on a tightrope-taut balance between cavorting and profundity to turn passive navel gazing into a gamboling truth-seeking extravaganza.
The world of the play springs into being out of sheer nothingness, introducing the arbitrarily named A and B (Matthew Gwynn and Michael Brian Ogden), a pair stuck at the precipice of some unknown adventure. Their immediate, relentless banter about the possibility and prudence of “beginning” feels like snapping awake halfway down a fall into a theoretical crevasse — the play makes no pretense of exposition, but rather fills in the vast emptiness with rampant curiosity, a sharply honed relationship dynamic, and intriguing variables. The duo’s personalities and thought processes begin at neutral and generously overlap, but critical differences peek in and grow into a clear (and richly exploited) alpha-beta dynamic. Ever the rubber-faced foil, Gwynn excels at wholly reacting to every new innovation, presenting as a baby to be guided, someone for the viewer to pity and adore in equal measure. Conversely, Ogden emerges as a dark mentor of sorts, strikingly confident and engrossed in bowling over his easily swayed other half.
The tangled and careening logic that marks the pair’s principally verbal journey is enhanced by an emphasis on physical fluidity, punctuated with scalpel-precise movement and choreography by Rhiannon Ragland. The careful thought put into repetition, mirroring work, and even strobe light–assisted excesses of slow motion does wonders translating a cerebral text into digestible entertainment. So, too, does the script’s recruitment of the audience itself, pulled from the ether and not-too-forcefully enlisted as part of this grand experiment. With help from compliant viewers, A and B together use material elements plucked from their sphere to bolster their rapid philosophy — in the face of such nothingness, even a shoe can take on incredible meaning. But through all the wooing of front-row beauties and nonsensical comic tangents, the show is plotting something grander. Somehow, a universe is erected with building blocks of reason, without ever explicitly naming the architecture — it’s part of Everything’s clever calculus, presenting incremental developments with the promise of some intangible veracity.
Intangible is the operative word here, and it’s reflected in the insistent blankness of the players’ surroundings. Set design by Gary Ciarkowski serves chiefly as a velvety palette for Noele Stollmack’s lighting scheme, which is so void of rules as to be legitimately thrilling. A definite Vaudevillian fingerprint marks Christianne Myers’s neutral-hued costumes, with one outsized piece of clothing becoming such an integral character component that it could have taken its own bow. Quintessa Gallinat’s encroaching sound design begins by mimicking the play’s meandering attention span through a sputter of despondent alternative songs, but grows a mind of its own and seizes dissonant focus just as A and B arrive at a climactic frenzy of uncertainty.
The play does suffer what may be an unavoidable fatigue problem — not on the part of the inexhaustible performers, but in the long stretch of a single scene with little more but abstractions to anchor them. Once the material stops feeling like new ground, perpetual discovery can slump into a been-there torpor, and there’s a brief but palpable dip in energy when the circuitous dialogue begins to feel like a long stare into an unblinking eye. Yet at the same time, this same nagging inscrutability, the persistent question mark of what any of it means or what lies ahead, is what turns around to become the show’s greatest galloping strength. Sanville and company manage to scream out into the abyss of their own making with legitimate fright, negating comfortable contemplation and taking the viewer with them into something wholly unknown and unknowable. It’s a needed shot of adrenaline that drags the play out of the thinking realm and into one of feeling, setting up for a handily earned and satisfying conclusion.
In terms of actual space and time, The Meaning of Almost Everything is a 70-minute academic workout, but in the world of this production, it plays out like dreaming. In bridging physical, mental, and emotional stimuli, this densely ethereal production earns its comic and intellectual chops by the score, not by purporting to supply any answers, but by recreating the sense of that supremely enlightening eternity that plays out in the instant before waking.