In the promotional materials for its latest production, Single Carrot Theatre emphasizes that playwright Will Eno—whose Tragedy: a tragedy concludes the Carrots’ third season in Baltimore—has been dubbed “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” The comparison (by New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood) is apt, for much of Tragedy plays like an extended version of The Daily Show. In his program notes, director J. Buck Jabaily wonders repeatedly, “What is this play all about?” … yet for most of the performance, the answer seems clear enough: Tragedy is a mono-toned satire of our 24-hour news cycle.
The problem is that Stewart and his buddies have been in this business for over a decade, and their medicine is best delivered in small doses. Obliviously ironic, windbag reporters are funny, make no mistake, but the more you cut back to them, the more redundant their shtick becomes. In the case of Tragedy—which received its world premiere in 2001, right around the time Comedy Central was making “fake news” more relevant than real news for large swaths of the populace—everything revolves around a single headline: The sun has set.
The Daily Show could no doubt turn this into a killer segment. Alas, Eno is writing a full-length play, and he stretches his conceit past the breaking point. His reporters—Frank in the Studio, John in the Field, Constance at the Home (the home is near where the sun has set), and legal advisor Michael—babble about the meaning of nighttime with all the gravitas they can muster, then babble some more, pausing only for the national news. The results are frequently clever—as isolated bits they might be hilarious—but for too long Eno fails to answer the most basic dramatic questions: Who are these people, and why do I want to spend an hour of my life with them?
To be fair to Single Carrot, my objections concern the play more than the production. Jabaily’s set design is striking—four wooden frames isolate each reporter, like the edges of television screens, so that characters rarely if ever face each other. The only downside is the structure’s height—looking up at the reporters in the top two “boxes” is not unlike the experience of sitting in the front row of a movie theatre. Sound designer Eric Lott does a nice job locating appropriately bizarre tracks to coordinate with the action onstage. Joey Bromfield’s lights and Chelsey Schuller’s costumes are unobtrusively effective.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As field reporters John and Constance, Nathan A. Cooper and Jessica Garrett could hold their own with Steve Carrell and Samantha Bee, while Nathan Fulton’s blustering Michael provides an interesting foil to his less combative colleagues. Michael Salconi makes the most of his too-brief appearances as a man who witnessed the setting sun; his heartfelt recollection of that experience is among the most human moments in the play.
As Frank in the Studio, Rich Espey gives the most nuanced performance, traversing a world of emotions behind his anchor’s desk. Espey gradually strips away Frank’s polished professionalism to reveal a man who, by play’s end, is dog tired and, by his own admission, not well, yet to see his face light up at the sound of a friendly voice is to sense what Tragedy might have been had it not lingered so long in the land of fake news. For Eno does push in a new direction eventually. One by one, the reporters talk themselves into nervous breakdowns; the broadcast grinds to a halt as Frank cries out for an update, any update, any alternative to the silence threatening to devour him. What follows is strangely moving, beautifully acted, and evidence of the “serious layers” to which Jabaily alludes in his director’s notes.