A title like Tragedy: a tragedy has, you might think, promises to keep. But what exactly are they? The repetition already flags, and flogs the futility in the gesture, announcing amusingly this post-tragic age. Instead, a sardonic scene suggests itself, nothing summing up the post-tragic like the daily litany of tragic stories on the news. And still, according to New York playwright Will Eno, whose previous works include 2004's Thom Pain (based on nothing), tragedy will out, even in the tragedy business.
Scattered over the Thrust Stage at the Berkeley Rep, where Tragedy is enjoying its sharp American premiere, stand three garrulous TV reporters. In one granite-lined corner is legal expert Michael (Max Gordon Moore); in another, home front correspondent Constance (Marguerite Stimpson) perches, just as dependably, in front of a home; and out on a jutting bit of lawn in the enveloping night is John in the Field (Thomas Jay Ryan). The three are arrayed, out on location, around the central and imposing studio-lighted, half-circle desk of anchorman Frank (a quietly impressive David Cromwell, looking and presenting very much the part of a slowly crumbling John Chancellor). One unnamed Witness (Danny Wolohan) stands by, in street clothes with a knapsack slung snug over both shoulders, more or less mute until nearly the end of the 70-minute single act.
As the scene unfolds, it's clear this is a special news day, in fact one long day's journey into perpetual night. The sun is missing overdue or something and apparently not coming back. It's the kind of catastrophic event unfolding in real-time that musters all the energies, ego, and élan of the news professionals. It's what they train for: the unending crisis that calls for unending comment, a filibustering of fate.
A substitute family, a set of everyday heroes, a security blanket of authoritative remarks and assurances god knows just what we see in them. Weighing in with weightless commentary and heavy-handed air, the reporters pass the feed, the buck, the potato, and the cliché as the earth settles into darkness.
"Is the sense of tragedy palpable?" asks our anchor. "Absolutely, Frank," a reporter assures him. "You can feel it!" Constance, in charge of empathy, dutifully sympathizes in all directions, sometimes in phrases so convoluted and meandering they are all but incomprehensible, and further undermined by her own invading guilty preoccupations. Michael, erect and rapid-fire, relays the governor's increasingly inept and despairing statements ("Let the looting begin!"). Meantime, adds John in the Field, the neighborhood dogs are doing what they, in the face of overwhelming tragedy, can be counted on to do, including "making their tags and collars jingle."
If improvising reporters have a knack for somehow coining clichés, Eno's generally inspired dialogue succeeds partly by trading hilariously on just this cursed gift. But the barrage of verbiage, the real blanket of night over us all, slowly unravels as the play moves through its short, sure arc toward a somewhat predictable but nevertheless gently moving anticlimax. Sputtering empty phrases, our reporters begin steadily edging toward the edge (to coin a representative phrase), teetering over into the void on the precipice of some personal point of view, some secret feeling, impression or memory; something actually felt, if not fully understood.
As the reporters spend themselves over the course of an hour like guttering candles, all but flickering out by the end, our Witness finds his voice. Angling fairly nimbly past one or two well-worn conceits, Eno's play reaches a not-unsatisfying end in a little night-blooming flower of an image, no more than a precise rendering of a mundane detail. Nothing really, but more than enough to awaken a sense of evanescence.