The Man in the Couch
Imagine two people trapped by their circumstances -- one in a crippling fear of what lay beyond her on walls, compensating with elaborate rituals; the other literally fused with the fabric of a piece of furniture following a teleporter accident. The Science Fiction Theatre Company's premiere of writer-director Alison Meirowitz/McCarthy's new play offers plenty to think over and argue about.
The fearful shut-in at the center of "The Man in the Couch" is Gigi (Lorna Noguiera), a woman who cannot venture out her front door without fainting in terror. Gigi lost her immediate family decades ago when her husband left her, taking their son, Alex, with him. Since then, Gigi has occupied herself with endless chores and small diversions, all of them obsessively intricate in execution. It's a way to pass the time, but those rituals also displace the human contact she's become unable to tolerate.
Instead of meaningful interactions with friends or relations, Gigi carries on chats with the man she's painting, daub by daub, on her latest canvas. The question of whether or not he should have blue eyes might well be enough to take up an entire morning, perhaps a full day, except for the plethora of intrusions and distractions that keep interrupting: The arrival of the mail, a phone call from Gigi's sister, a new delivery man from the grocery store.
The day's most dramatic intrusion occurs when a teleporter accident suddenly deposits a soldier (Andrew Cromartie) in Gigi's living room, merging him with her sofa. After a few minutes of confusion and startlement, Gigi and the soldier become deadlocked in a cycle of need and resistance. The soldier will die an agonizing death within a few hours unless Gigi makes a phone call to alert his superiors of the accident and his plight. Extracting him from the sofa is easily accomplished, with the right tech support, but it also means opening the door to a host of people, a prospect as gruesome to Gigi as the surety of his own demise is to the soldier.
The idea of the teleporter and its potential discontents is a staple of the genre, and the Science Fiction Theatre Company explored one teleporter-related theme last season with "On Ego," a play that examined the time honored conundrum of the "teleporter clone." What is the ethical way of handling the creation of a person's duplicate when that person fails to dematerialize from Point A but still appears, in identical and separate form, at Point B? Are the two individuals truly the same? Can one -- should one -- of the duplicates be destroyed in the name of human dignity and the legal necessity of preserving the meaning of the word "individual," presumes that only one original will exist for any given person, and makes no allowance for artificially produced living copies?
In the case of "The Man in the Couch," the quandary is more urgent, and less probable, not to mention both more and less metaphorical. We are faced here not with any sort of bilocation or duplication, but the problem of material superimposition, with the side effect of life-limiting anchoring. The couch literally has arms now -- human arms, not to mention a talking (often shouting) head. Seen a different way, the soldier has a whole new body shape, immobile though it might be; it's not a body that can sustain life, though. This is not the manic and slowly transforming "Brundlefly," the ill fated compound result of the experiment in teleportation carried out by Jeff Goldblum in the David Cronenberg remake of "The Fly." Rather, this is a man stranded and, in a sense, drowning; both out of his element and immersed in an element the human organism was never meant to survive.
Neither Gigi nor the soldier particularly wants to be trapped in the confined spaces to which they find their lives limited. The fact that survival for one means the other has to overcome a crippling fear that has ruled and defined her existence for twenty years and more literally means exchanging her life as she knows it (circumscribed as it may be) as the cost of preserving someone else's existence.
This is intriguing stuff, and the performances bring out the nuances in the material. Gigi is not eccentric, weird or off-kilter; she's gracious and smart, the sort of woman you'd love to have as a neighbor or a friend in a pottery class. The soldier is a young man possessed by two thoughts only, duty and survival; he's not a black-ops assassin, or, if he is, he's not soulless about it. His panic and pain humanize him (as does what must be a hot, uncomfortable combination of costume and prop, as Cromartie ends up soaked in sweat by the end of this brief play).
What is slightly problematic is the structure of the play itself, once the soldier appears. After a suitably gradual buildup during which we become familiar with Gigi, there's a shift in pace that seems jarring; the soldier's arrival strikes a slightly false note not because it happens abruptly and without notice, but because it throws the play into a frenzy from which it recovers awkwardly. Once the play regains its balance, however, the interplay between the two characters, and the way they are filled in, is achieved to lovely effect.
But questions remain, as do holes in our comprehension. Is teleportation such a commonplace technology in this setting that a soldier's melding with a sofa is so easily accepted? Gigi never wonders whether she's finally developed cabin fever or begun conjuring imaginary friends after her long spell of isolation. The soldier, for his part, moves rapidly from relief that he's not at the bottom of the sea or at the North Pole to fruitless aggression, such that it seems a step is missing.
This is a fascinating concept that asks for a little further development... a little more materialization, if you will. Meantime, its principles are sound and its characters well realized. Meirowitz/McCarthy knows what she wants from this material, having written the play, and she does a fine job as director.
"The Man in the Couch" continues through Nov. 18 at the Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston. For more information, please visit http://www.sciencefictiontheatrecompany.com