A professor falls victim to university budget cuts and must submit to the ritual humiliations of the exit interview when a campus shooting rampage makes him re-evaluate his feelings about relationships and religion in William Missouri Downs’ philosophical comedy “The Exit Interview,” which made its Louisville premiere at The Bard’s Town last night. “The Exit Interview” runs through May 18 in the theater upstairs from the restaurant.
“The Exit Interview” enjoyed a rolling world premiere in the 2012-13 season, playing in six regional theaters across the United States, thanks to the National New Play Network. In an interview with the National New Play Network, Downs says that he thinks most modern plays make few philosophical statements, preferring emotion and story over theme. I’ll buy that. He counters this trend in “The Exit Interview” by invoking German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s principles of epic theatre, which eschews the empathetic suspension of disbelief favored by narrative theatre, emphasizing rational self-reflection and moral didacticism instead. The central question of the play is whether there is a God and if he cares about how and when we die.
It doesn’t sound funny, but it is. “The Exit Interview” holds nothing sacred, and that cultivates fertile comedy ground. The play offers plenty of laughs from a talented and energetic cast, though it mostly preaches to its own choir, unlikely to seriously shake foundations of faith or reason.
The show opens with a masked gunman holding pistols to the heads of two deranged cheerleaders played by April Singer and Megan Marie Brown, whose off-kilter energy (as they cheer about offensive content to come) sets the tone for the absurdist, meta-device-slinging comedy. The ever-reliable and charismatic Singer and Brown play multiple roles with gusto in the production, which also features Ryan Watson as several characters (most memorably a priest with a very slippery understanding of Trinitarian maths) and Cory Hardin as a smarmy Fox News reporter (Hardin’s bio informs us he will soon depart for New York, which is a shame for us as he’s a capable and polished comedic talent).
Bard’s Town artistic director Scot Atkinson (who also directs) plays Richard Fig, a Brecht scholar who shows up for his exit interview with a leg in a cast and a bad attitude toward small talk and inspirational platitudes. Human Resources manager Eunice (Ebony Jordan, who, Brecht would be dismayed to learn, delivers a fabulously natural performance) believes The Secret (Google it if you don’t watch daytime TV) cured her cancer. They get stuck in Eunice’s supply closet-turned-office when gunshots ring out and a campus shooter remains at large in their building.
Downs allows Richard to indulge in a “this is your life” review of where he arguably went wrong regarding faith and love, but ultimately the play comes down firmly on the randomness of evil. Don’t expect to care too much about Dick or his outcome – Downs employs Brecht’s foundational philosophy of alienation to make sure the audience never connects with the play’s characters on a story level. “The Exit Interview,” quite deliberately, is not about emotion, it’s about ideas.
The humor, however, while dark and mostly effective, doesn’t quite have the kind of teeth needed to stick those moral lessons – it’s about as lightweight as comedies featuring mass murders can get. Staged at a religiously-conservative college campus, this play’s ideas might be shocking. In a pub theater whose audience demographic is likely to include those who quote from “Cosmos” and share the “I [bleeping] Love Science” posts on Facebook, Downs’ attitude is pretty tame.
A note on the Brecht: don’t worry if you don’t know your Gestus from your Verfremdungseffekt. The play is disrupted several times (a sound Brecthian device) with script changes, delivered to the actors mid-scene, that consist of expository passages explaining Brecht’s dramatic theories and style, to be shouted at the audience in semi-hysterical German accents. The monologues are textbook Theatre 101, and a little unnecessary if Downs would trust the audience to appreciate his humor whether or not they get every little in-joke (Brecht’s influence has so thoroughly wormed its way through postmodern theatre that breaking the fourth wall, for example, hardly requires a dramaturgical footnote), but German shouting is always good for a few laughs. Still, the script would be stronger – if shorter – if the playwright allowed more of his Brechtian gags to remain unremarked-upon Easter eggs for the drama nerds to discover.