Out and about in the '80s

Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love

By Brad Fraser
Directed by Tim Errickson
Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Pelican Studio Theatre
750 8th Avenue, Room 601 (212/560-2241)
Equity showcase (closes Feb. 8)
Review by Adam Cooper

The dark and deadly days of the Reagan era were ominously resuscitated in these more-Reagan-than-Reagan times in Oberon Theatre Ensemble's revival of Brad Fraser's controversial play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Set in the summer of 1989 in the Canadian city of Edmonton, the play follows the lives and relationships of a half-dozen hardened and cynical twentysomethings, stuck in unsatisfying jobs and blindly hunting for some kind of love under a cloud of fear created by a prowling serial killer. Detached from emotion and ironically naïve about love, these worldly yet worn characters learn only through loss and pain how to feel for themselves and for other people.

Dwelling inside this barren landscape is David (Ian Pfister), the gay child-star-turned-waiter plowing through substitute loves, such as boy-toy Kane (WT McRae), in place of friend Bernie (Peter Picard), whom he can never have. Candy (Heather McAllister), his roommate and ex-lover, is a disengaged book reviewer whose self-centered search for love veers wildly and recklessly, causing pain for herself and her love interests Robert (Evan Zes) and Jerri (Thea McCartan). Watching over them in Prospero-like fashion from her dark domain is macabre Benita (Kate Sandberg), whose seer-like powers provide both fantasy fulfillment and foreboding forecasts.

The production rather successfully captured the 1980s milieu not only through what was included but also through what was absent from a post-modern play about young people. Brad Fraser's naturalistic yet stylized dialog, along with the heartless proto-mechanized period music (Sarah Gromko), was effective in evoking a desensitized world where sex, drugs, and violence fail to stimulate. The absence of cell phones, the Internet, and hip-hop culture helped place the era squarely in the distant past. Of prominent importance was the main mode of communication: the telephone and its answering machine, a thematic device used to help characters connect with, and just as frequently disconnect from, each other.

Among the performances, the supporting roles offered the more convincing and interesting characterizations. Kane and Jerri's earnest attempts to love and care for the central characters were genuine and heartfelt. In contrast, David and Candy were so persistently detached as to weaken the humor of the play and efforts at empathy or curiosity. Many of their scenes passed fleetingly and engendered little depth or resonance. Bernie's transformation from friend to foe came off as unrealistic and abrupt. Tim Errickson's direction was effective, particularly in juggling the plethora of scene changes, yet was lacking in fomenting a richer emotional experience.

The technical end of this production was its weakest component. The set design (Ian Pfister), centering on a futon and a bed, lacked originality and conveyed little about the 1980s or the characters who inhabited it. Not only was there nothing particularly Canadian about the set pieces, but not enough was offered to suggest that these were people's homes. Given the variety of locales and limited dimensions of the theater, better use of the space could have been made than of Benita's barely used, stage-eating bed.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 0
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Adam Cooper