Kelly Hutchinson, Noah Bean, and Dan Fogler
in The Voyage of the Carcass
(© Mario Ducoudray)
Kelly Hutchinson, Noah Bean, and Dan Fogler
in The Voyage of the Carcass
(© Mario Ducoudray)
Dan O'Brien's The Voyage of the Carcass raises an intriguing question about contemporary theater: Can you tell by a customized cell-phone announcement whether what you're about to see will be good or bad? On the evidence of this show, the answer is yes. The preliminary warning here is an arch, unfunny couple of sentences delivered by one of the players -- and it turns out to be characteristic of the arch, unfunny, woefully undergraduate play that follows.

In the show's opening segment, set in a theater where confetti snow has been amassed, three characters are showing signs of cabin fever. Surrounded by Wilson Chin's calculatedly cluttered set, the hapless ones are Bane Barrington (Dan Fogler, in a clown's red nose and with a wide buttock piece attached to his black-and-red getup), Israel (Noah Bean), and Elijah Kane (Kelly Hutchinson), the latter of whom may not be what he appears to be. Bane goes through some stage business with a lantern swinging over his head and begins carrying on in the multi-octave voice that's already familiar from the cell-phone speech. It soon becomes clear that the adventurers are condemned to each other's company after years of attempting to reach the North Pole but failing to do so.

Shortly thereafter, though, a 10-minute Actors' Equity break is called, and that's when the true nature of the enterprise is revealed. This is that heart-sinking staple of young writers: a piece about actors putting on a play. Yes, you're about to be immersed in something you couldn't care less about -- unless you happen to be at A Chorus Line. You'll hear two actors (Fogler and Hutchinson) and one actor/playwright (Bean) express themselves with seriousness about the painful doubts of readying a production.

When the three fictional thespians begin airing their resentments and uncertainties, the words "process" and "journey" shoot from the dialogue. The inclusion of those clichéd terms, so rampant in today's self-impressed theater world, momentarily suggests that playwright O'Brien is writing a satire. Nope; he means what he's saying. Much closer to the tenor of the piece is an exchange about being stuck with no way out, which echoes an observer's rising sentiments.

There's also a volley involving playwright Dan that has him responding "I don't know" to the query, "Where do you want to take us?" Actually, O'Brien does know. He informs us by way of a quote inserted in the program from Frederick Pryce Evans, a ship captain who came upon survivors of a failed Antarctic expedition: "Their normal social relations had been suspended and replaced by a primitive unmannerlieness [sic] which demonstrated how queer these people had become under the influence of prolonged and trying association with each other."

So there you have it. O'Brien is pointing out that Bane, Kane and Israel -- who alternate scenes with Bill, Helen, and Dan throughout the play -- are in the same jam as the figures they portray. They've lost their internal compass. O'Brien has decided that working in the theater can be like a failed Antarctic expedition, especially if the improvisation is going badly and two of the participants are having marital difficulties. It's quite a negligible point, unless he's warning that the same applies to theatergoers as well.

The show will be particularly disappointing to the fans whom Fogler gathered with his Tony-winning portrayal of William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He is this project's muscle -- his mother, Shari, is an associate producer -- and he behaves accordingly. Fogler tries audence members' patience with his self-indulgent performance, which was apparently not tempered by director Randy Baruh. Co-stars Bean and Hutchinson are talented but, as they confess, stuck in this mess.

One patron, quitting at intermission, had turned his cell phone back on and was heard saying into it, "Unless they all get naked and set themselves on fire, this is the worst thing I've ever seen." I'm not inclined to put up much of an argument.