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The Underlying Chris Asks, What's in a Name? It Might Not Be a Self

Will Eno debuts his latest exploration of life, death, and the identity that coalesces in between.

Hannah Cabell and Howard Overshown in the world premiere of Will Eno's The Underlying Chris, directed by Kenny Leon, at Second Stage.
(© Joan Marcus)

Will Eno really likes thinking about Life. Finding meaning in the mundane, absurd, and totally nonsensical is his specialty, and in the past few off-Broadway seasons we've seen his various attempts at wrapping his arms around the enormous topic. I'm specifically referring to his 2017 production of Wakey, Wakey, a play in which a man nearing the end of his life eulogizes himself from a wheelchair; and the 2018 revival of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), in which the title character delivers an existential monologue about dogs and bee stings while standing next to a mysterious abyss.

The Underlying Chris, a world premiere directed by Kenny Leon at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, lives in that same oddball world where human customs start to seem alien and you begin to ask yourself questions like, What even is the experience of sitting in this theater? Only this time, instead of one person reflecting on a life from the tail end of it, we see a full life unfold from cradle to grave — in a Will Eno kind of way.

Chris is our main character, but there is no one Chris. From scene to scene, men and women of varying ethnicities take on the role of "Chris" (though the name comes in many forms including Khris, Christine, Krista, and Christiana). Each Chris shares a common history: His/her parents died young, he/she was a diver who later switched to tennis, and he/she has chronic back pain stemming from a mishap with a stuffed carrot as a baby. All three of those facts very well could make it into the Reader's Digest summary of a life. But what is the unifying identity…underlying…these qualities and experiences? Who's to say there even is one?

Michael Countryman and Nidra Sous La Terre in a scene from The Underlying Chris.
(© Joan Marcus)

Eno is the master of posing such heady questions with concision and just the right amount of insolent wit. He cuts right to the chase in his prologue (performed by the young and impressively self-possessed Isabella Russo, dressed in a men's suit designed by Dede Ayite). "It's a story about the moments that shape a life, and the people who shape a moment," she says. "And also, mystery. And, meaning. Who's up for some meaning!?" she continues, garnering cheers from a crowd clearly hoping to receive some artistic affirmation about how life is teeming with significance. It's a subject the audience cares about, and is clearly a subject Eno's characters also care about. "I'm just starting to figure out who I am, and they take away my identification," says an older version of Chris named Kit (played by Michael Countryman) as his license is revoked at a DMV.

But in Eno's typical style, his characters have a robotic detachment from the feelings and desires they verbally communicate. This lifelong quest for a soul, for lack of a better word, is emotionally charged. And for once, despite the infinite delight I get from Eno's bird's-eye view of earthlings and their crazy behaviors, I wish we were allowed to feel the stakes behind that pursuit of self. Without it, The Underlying Chris is left feeling more sterile than a play about the meaning of life ever should.

Charles Turner, Lizbeth MacKay, and Nicholas Hutchinson in The Underlying Chris, running off-Broadway through December 15.
(© Joan Marcus)