In Christopher Durang's Turning off the Morning News, having its world premiere through June 3 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, we're often laughing – disturbed and off-balance, but laughing. This play, technically a comedy, is laced with darkness.
News continues the connection between McCarter artistic director Emily Mann (this production's director) and her Harvard classmate Durang. It's the third Durang world premiere at McCarter. The last one, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, went from McCarter to Broadway, copping the 2013 Tony Award for best play.
We're in a suburb of close-built houses. Beowulf Borrit's sensational set has the hallucinatory, light-flooded quality of a Pixar cartoon. The stage rotates from the living room of one house to that of its next-door neighbor, one absurd world to another. All is encircled by a blue frame recalling the front casing on an old TV.
The opening from unemployed trucker Jimmy (played by the great John Pankow) is unsettling and offhand: "I am feeling very depressed. I'm thinking of killing myself. … You're lucky I'm in the play and not in the audience. Talk to you again later."
Then, boom! Here comes Jimmy's spouse, Polly – played by the overwhelmingly great Kristine Nielsen – who unleashes an utterly nuts 10-minute soliloquy. Determined to look on the bright side, Polly has very detailed notions of the afterlife, including the celebrities likely to be on hand. Yet hers is strenuous cheer. She's worried about her spouse and son (she can never remember his name, Timmy, because it's so close to Jimmy), the neighbors, a beloved plant, Olympic swimming, the threat of gunfire.
Next door are Clifford (tremendous Robert Sella) and Salena (Rachel Nicks, very good in an underdeveloped role). She is black, he white, and they are living together but not in a relationship; they're just there to support each other.
Yes, there's an undertow of the daily media battery, old movies, evening news, social media. But it's misdirection: The craziness here exists in the characters, not somehow "because" of the media, though they may amplify the craziness already underway. Clifford, an editor at a newspaper, turns the TV on then off, taking refuge instead in the "order" of classical music.
The two households gather for a cocktail party. They are joined by Rosalind (kinetic Jenn Harris), a neighbor who wears a bag over her head to keep off the sun and rattles on about her facial cancer surgery. Misconnections, gaffes, hilarity, and objectionable statements erupt. Where Durang is taking us, we cannot tell. Nor will I.
News mixes the crazy-funny and the mortally dark in ways that may offend some and make others question whether it really works. Does one overwhelm the other? What of the play's tender ending? (I think it works: It's as absurd as everything else.) Larger questions: Do you come away thinking the ride was worth it?
I did. At the end, my laugh muscles were tired, my brain was puzzled – and I wanted very much to see the play again. If that's where Durang would like us, then he's succeeded.