OK. I’m going to admit it. When “A Devil at Noon” ended after 2 1/2 hours as the opener in Humana’s Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre, I looked at 13-year-old Luke’s bewildered eyes and said, “I don’t get it.”
We were struggling to figure out the story behind the play, written by Anne Washburn and performed in the 318-seat Bingham Theatre. Don’t take that as a complaint — the acting was excellent and spurred a lengthy conversation on the way home.
The story is about science fiction writer Chet Ellis (Joseph Adams), who proclaims early on that he’s done hallucinogens and doesn’t see his drug use as a problem. He’s visited by Lois (Rebecca Hart), who he met at an addiction meeting but can’t figure out how she got to his place. She won’t tell him her last name yet eagerly seduces him, which leads to a post-coital conversation that includes some real writing gems.
The play is set in 1981 Berkeley, and a political discussion ensues in which Lois mentions her thoughts on “Ronald”, her president. She’s not really political, or knowledgeable, she says. “Why bother spending all that time getting informed when I’m not changing my opinion anyway.”
While Adams is the focus of the action, Hart is the real attraction here. She’s got a Zooey Deschanel-like way of saying things that you totally aren’t expecting, which gets to the part we had trouble figuring out.
At the end, she’s singing in the center of the stage, so I had to look her up to learn that she fronts a band, “Rebecca Hart and the Sexy Children.”
In the end, there’s some question as to whether this whole thing is part of Ellis’ imagination, because he’s got receipts for places that don’t exist, and he can’t figure out how Lois found him. He’s writing a book, and maybe Lois is just a fictional character in the book. Is he imagining her? She says she’s not a fan of his, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t read his work. She has the ability to know what he’s going to write the next day, even before he does. The audience is left to figure out what’s real and what’s imagined.
The play drags a bit, especially when Ellis spends time making coffee and puttering around his kitchen with imaginary utensils, complemented with well-timed sound effects. And there’s a pair of detectives rummaging around in his apartments, an odd character who’s new to a job in Section 8, and a strange Moon Man who rises up and turns the moon on and off.
Washburn credits the late Bay Area writer Philip K. Dick for inspiration in the work, focusing on alternate realities that were Dick’s stock-in-trade.
And it might be that Luke and I just weren’t imaginative enough to get it. From the play’s preview piece: ” . . . in a play about the addiction, power, and danger of dwelling in your imagination, Washburn has placed real demands on the imagination of the audience, and the actors.”
For Luke and I, it didn’t matter that we didn’t really understand everything that went on in the play. We loved the performance and the stimulation for our imaginations.
The play runs through April 3 at Actors. Tonight, the public is invited to the Festival’s Kick-off Party, starting at 7. It will feature the music of Dude Plays Saxophone and food and drink from BBC, Cake Flour, Heine Brothers, Proof on Main, Mayan Cafe and Saffron’s.
HINT: Since there’s not a game going on across the street, park on the street. Or pay $8 to get in the Garage.