Subtlety Is Not an Option in the Beckettian Wasteland That Is ‘Gas’
The play is less pretentious and more coherent than any number of works you may have seen by writers working in this challenging vein, in which aspiration can so often outweigh inspiration.
Although Charles Cissel has had 10 plays produced at New York, he is probably best known for the actor attached to one in particular: “My Mother’s Severed Head,” a dark comedy featuring a decapitated matriarch, was presented off-Broadway by the actor Bruce Willis a couple of years ago. Mr. Cissel’s latest work, “Gas,” is now enjoying its world premiere with the backing of another screen star, Luke Wilson, and this time the premise is even bleaker, believe it or not.
Directed by Felicia Lobo, who according to her bio “specializes in horror and fantastical theater,” “Gas” unfurls in a Beckettian wasteland, where a set of cement square tubes designed by Christopher and Justin Swader suggest a sort of dystopian jungle gym. (Mr. Cissel’s stage directions indicate they should resemble San Francisco’s Vaillancourt Fountain.) Five characters — among them a young man, a young woman, someone called The Fool and a saxophonist who plays rather than speaking — wander about; they are the battered remnants of some war or series of wars that apparently never ends, though it is sometimes referred to in the past tense.
The fifth character, named Godme, presides over this ongoing catastrophe like a bad standup comedian, in a cream-colored suit and a white tie that turns blood-red at its tip. (Katja Andreiev designed the creepily evocative costumes.) It is revealed that Godme, played to the unctuous hilt by A.J. Ditty, declared himself a divine being very early in life, when he realized that there were no others, or at least none left. (There were once “many,” we’re told.) “I Godded me up,” he quips; hence the name, get it?
Through most of the play, Godme addresses us, and periodically his fellow characters, while standing atop a cube placed upstage. “I feel like I should go down there, but humans scare me,” he confesses. Later, finally engaging the others at closer range, he sniffs, “I only deal with living things that are willing to die.”
Whether Mr. Cissel is merely mocking the concept of a benevolent God or arguing the futility of religion — or assigning the latter a role in the military-industrial complex — it’s not a pretty picture. The playwright manages to insert sentimental cliches into his post-apocalyptic vision: The saxophonist, a sober Kevin Kim, plays “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Taps,” and The Fool, whose desperation is made refreshingly spunky in Scout Backus’s animated performance, comes to represent a certain iconic soldier, who in the play maintains a direct line of communication with Godme.
The young man played by JJ McGlone is a more mundane warrior, torn between a vague sense of duty and his love for the young woman portrayed by Ta’Neesha Murphy, whose relaxed sensuality contrasts nicely with the earnest stoicism Mr. McGlone brings to his role, and reinforces the stealth threat her character presents to Godme. Both lovers, and The Fool, repeatedly lament the “stench” of war; the word appears in the script more than 20 times.
Mr. Cissel’s text ensures that subtlety is never an option for Ms. Lobo or her designers. The Fool, for instance, is introduced emerging from a tube; “birthed out in a deep red sharkskin outfit with a big hole where the heart used to be,” he “rolls out in a scream onto his back.” Godme will refer to the character several times as his “supplier,” while making it plain he’s seeking a replacement.
If the play’s absurdism, however aggressive, doesn’t run very deep, it also doesn’t run long. Over its 80 minutes, “Gas” is also less pretentious and more coherent than any number of works you may have seen by writers working in this challenging vein, in which aspiration can so often outweigh inspiration. Given his luck so far, I have no doubt that Mr. Cissel will, like his less fortunate characters, keep plugging away.