“Man in Love” is about many things, but especially about the deceptions we use to survive.
Of the six characters in Christina Anderson’s play, which is receiving its world premiere in a KC Rep production on the Copaken Stage as part of the Origin KC New Works Festival, most are not what they at first seem.
Two characters are African-Americans passing as white; one is a white man living as a woman; another is an ex-con trying to hide his criminal past.
And then there’s the young black library employee — all buttoned-down politeness and decorum — who periodically lets off steam by murdering young women and pasting patches of their skin to his apartment wall.
In hands less adventurous than Anderson’s, “Man in Love” might have been a conventional mystery about a serial killer stalking an African-American neighborhood during the Great Depression.
But from the first scene in which library worker Paul Pare (Rufus Burns) chattily prepares breakfast for the dead woman lying under his kitchen table, we know the killer’s identity. With that out of the way, Anderson settles down to her real themes: desperation, loneliness, fear of discovery and economic devastation.
When he’s not murdering women, Paul seems a harmless sort. He especially enjoys playing board games with two neighbors.
Darlynn (Dianne Yvette) is an agoraphobic who hasn’t left her apartment in two years. She survives on money sent by her sister, a successful entertainer in France, but that gravy train is ending. She’s fragile and neurotic.
Considerably tougher is Bernice (Bianca Leigh), who throws rent parties to earn cash. Lonely white men show up at her apartment to eat, drink and pick up African-American women. She just scrapes by.
Meanwhile Walker (Michael R. Pauley), fresh out of stir, struggles to find a job. The testimonial letter in his pocket will probably fall apart before he gets a prospective employer to read it.
He’s crashing with his old buddy Leigh (Justin Barron), a broad-faced, friendly and rather shy fellow who has a terrific crush on a nursing student, Hazel (Emily Shackelford).
Leigh is charming in a hapless way, like when he asks Hazel out by doing a rather impressive pantomime routine on the street outside the cafe where she is studying, but he’s having little success. It’s not that Hazel doesn’t like him, but that she won’t let anyone get close, lest they discover her secret, one that could ruin her life.
Anderson and director Marissa Wolf present all these interlocking stories through scenes that flow effortlessly from one to the next on Antje Ellermann’s skeletal set, a series of scaffolding that stand in for buildings.
Some of the dialogue exchanges are quite good, but what you’ll remember most are the creepy monologues of serial killer Paul, who between polite greetings to unseen strangers he encounters on the street, lets his subconscious run free.
There are 206 bones in the human body he informs us, and apparently he’s set his sights on crushing or snapping every one of them. The content of these eerily calm ravings are disturbing enough; even more unsettling is the elegant language he employs to describe his dark obsessions. He’s a poet of mayhem.
“Man in Love” isn’t what you’d call a well-made play. Its effect is more impressionistic than conventionally dramatic. With a running time of just 90 minutes the resolutions of a couple of the story lines feel a bit hurried and pat.
Yet there’s something weirdly compelling about Anderson’s play. It’s hard to pin it down, but “Man in Love” leaves us with a mixed bag of horror and hope.
If you go
“Man in Love” will continue through May 28. Copaken Stage, KC Rep. $35-$59. kcrep.org