In concocting the literary recipe for his first full-length play, “Intelligentsia,” it feels like Omaha playwright Aaron Zavitz has borrowed a tablespoon of vinegar from Samuel Beckett, two fingers of bourbon from Tennessee Williams, a dash of cayenne from Edward Albee — and an ending that calls to mind Zavitz's recent short film, “In Silence and Tears.”
But all that borrowing results in a substantive, and at times tasty, theatrical meal. It premiered last weekend at the Shelterbelt Theatre.
As the show opens, Lawrence (John Hatcher) and Catherine (Lisa Kalantjakos) are all but comatose in front of their flatscreen TV, awash in a sea of fast-foot garbage. Television has become their refuge from reality — and each other.
Then the cable goes out.
The setup and the initial style of absurdist dialogue trip a few laughs while bringing to mind Albee's dysfunctional families. Steeped in the existential despair of Beckett, the two talk of “holding onto something that's been long gone” while hiding from a well-meaning but intrusive neighbor (Janet Macklin).
What exactly are we watching here?
Then as husband and wife, fueled by booze, start zinging each other, you might think of Tennessee Williams, or of Albee again, as you hear agitated Larry talk of “thoughts that rush like blood.”
The past does eventually, and painfully, come flooding back.
It's piecemeal, leaving the audience waiting (perhaps a bit long in Act 1) for the next morsel of information that will explain why these two have taken refuge in a television stupor.
You'll get that spelled out for you in an Act 2 flashback, when an elegant cocktail-party celebration in Lawrence and Catherine's home turns into an ugly confrontation with their adult daughter, Sarah (Jennifer McGill, spot-on).
Director Eric Salonis and cast seem most at home with the absurdist-tinged first act. Kalantjakos, in particular, is mesmerizing even as she is mesmerized, a shattered soul slowly waking to a worse reality.
You may not find as much ring of truth in the contrasting realism of Act 2: urbane cocktail banter (Vernon Wheeler, Laci Neal, Michael Lane and Kate Simmons deliver it neatly) that turns into a domestic pall — and then a twist ending that doesn't fully satisfy.
The dialogue goes down easier than the second-act plot turns.
“Intelligentsia” is ambitiously crowded with contrasting theatrical styles, heady ideas and a slice of domestic melodrama. Yet the ideas behind the storytelling — and some fine character acting — are haunting enough to hang with you.
There are worse fates for a new play than falling just shy here and there when reaching for so much.
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