It turns out we know very little…if anything at all. This message may be received with varying degrees of surprise or distress, depending upon your penchant for Socratic mind games. Luckily, we have insightful playwright Pamela Carter and the talented folks at One Year Lease to remind us of this sobering fact with brilliant artistry. A hidden gem of New York theater, One Year Lease proves how creativity and a vivid imagination can take a modest theatrical experience from grunge to gourmet.
Now receiving its U.S. premiere downtown at the intimate Teatro Circulo, What We Know simultaneously confuses and stimulates our senses as we piece together a puzzle we're never even quite sure needs solving. Long-time romantic partners Lucy and Jo (played by Sarah-Jane Casey and Nick Flint) open the play in an austere, black kitchen (designed by James Dardenne). As the lighthearted Jo attempts to teach his sarcastic and foulmouthed girlfriend how to cook a meal of gnocchi with tomato sauce and pudding, ingredients and utensils casually disappear into the sterile counters — the first eyebrow-raising hint that this world may not be as similar to our own as it appears at first glance. Our suspicions are confirmed when Jo mysteriously disappears with the flash of a refrigerator light (a white abyss designed by Mike Riggs), leaving Lucy disoriented and alone with a half-prepared meal on the stove.
Carter handily plays with abstract language in a style reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, creating a subtly dreamlike (or in this case nightmarish) landscape for the play's action. Ianthe Demos and Natalie Lomonte codirect the material with a rhythmic precision that perfectly suits the form, creating a world that we can safely assume is not grounded in reality but never becomes overly exaggerated or insincere. Though no monsters or ghouls from beyond the grave pop out of sinks or cabinets, personal demons do confront Lucy as she feels her way through this groundless labyrinth into which she has been thrown against her will. As delicious aromas slowly fill the room, Lucy's memories begin to solidify, as does the world around her.
Casey maneuvers beautifully through the play's unsteady ground. She keeps us solidly anchored while her character aimlessly drifts through a sea of murky confusion, digging through her memory to uncover the truth of what happened to Jo. A strong supporting cast joins her on this journey to solid ground. Ethan Slater lends a charming innocence to his performance as a mysterious teenage boy who wanders into Lucy's home looking for food and conversation. His visit is followed by an unanticipated dinner party with a collection of three unlikely guests — Lucy's tightly wound neighbor Charlie (Kim Weild), her shy college friend Cal (Richard Saudek), and a compassionate emergency-call handler named Helen (a standout performance by Vanessa Kai) — who have conveniently arrived just in time to enjoy the meal that we have seen (and smelled) Lucy preparing all afternoon. The language begins to float back down to earth as we realize Lucy's unexpected guests know much more about Jo's disappearance than she does — though the information Lucy pries from the three of them still falls short of satisfying her insatiable hunger to understand her inexplicable loss.
Carter's virtually plotless play makes several dizzying loops before restoring our balance with the long-anticipated information that fills in the missing pieces of the plot. Still, it's worth hanging on through this darkened maze to gently land at the play's poignant conclusion, where these additional pieces of knowledge only further reveal how little we know.