When a dramatic work opens with a pair of cheerleaders shouting out slogans of "existential uncertainty" and "metaphysical isolation" with a masked gunman lurking in the background, it's a sure sign the audience must let its hair down.
Thankfully, William Missouri Downs' "The Exit Interview" makes that unusual request with style and substance to spare. In fact, it's one of the rare plays that's far more subtle and humorous on stage than on the page.
Just don't expect a dramatic narrative with any conventional form. This is a play that lumbers along at its own tempo, almost devoid of energy we normally associate with the four-letter word we call "plot." Instead, this expertly delivered Utah premiere of Downs' entry in the National New Play Network lashes itself to the mast of its own litany of ideological and thematic mischief. And it does so with a brand of comic gusto reminiscent of the best "Saturday Night Live" skits. Only this time, those skits seem written by a team of fevered graduate students.
The play gels quickly enough with the introduction of Dick Fig, a college professor with a doctorate in Bertolt Brecht who finds himself laid off from his university position, venting his woes gently but firmly to Eunice, a secretary in the university's human resources department. Played almost note perfect by Darrin Doman, Fig is a man cramped by his own earnest nature. He can't stand small talk, and therefore can't abide a world so stuffed with nonsense. Even his doctoral dissertation is titled in honor of the two subjects people should talk about, but don't: "No Religion, No Politics."
In addition to being cursed with a girlfriend obsessed with playing the oboe, played by the fantastic Marin Kohler as one of several roles, Fig himself is obsessed with the theatrical techniques of Brecht.
"He felt that theatre shouldn't be magical, it shouldn't just help us escape reality, but make us think," Fig tells even his potential mother-in-law. "He did this by stopping a play in the middle and putting on a completely different play."
"The Exit Interview" does just that, and more, but sometimes with a smirk so wide it can detract from its own brilliance. No one needs another inane reminder of the "boxers-vs.-briefs" debate, or the redundant propaganda of Fox News, but Downs takes us there.
These moments are mercifully short, however, compared to all the high notes on offer. As Fig wrings his hands over his car-wreck of a personal and professional life the play bounds along on the glee of its own rib-jabbing. Fig's running arguments with Eunice about fate, religion and science overflow into scenes featuring an argument over proteins between neuroscientists, karaoke to adapted melodies by Kurt Weill, and a hilarious flashback of Fig's childhood priest, played to near perfection by Bijan Hosseini, crunching numbers to explain the Holy Trinity.
Riotous sound effects abound. Slogans on hanging placards keep a running score. The whole thing hangs together far better than it has any right to.
The irony, of course, is that insofar as Downs seemingly relies on Brechtian reminders that the audience should think more than be entertained, both acts are committed on tracks running side-by-side. And despite the protests of the German playwright, there's more than a little magic on stage too.
"The Exit Interview"is too tart to offer warmth, and too smart to pass as a work of genius that might also offer a lyrical sense of profundity. But it makes for a great evening of theater, and makes us pine for a world where just like sports teams acting companies and playwrights might one day have cheerleaders and corporate sponsors of their own.
'The Exit Interview'
When • Through May 5. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $15-$42. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org
Bottom line • A fine, riotous romp through satiric theater that's also a short course in contemporary stage techniques. SLAC's outstanding cast makes it all go down like a treat. Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.