Theatre Review: ‘Gnit’ at the Humana Festival

Dan Waller as Peter and Kate Eastwood Norris as Stranger 2. Photo by Kathy Prehyer

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Gnit” by Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Meet Peter Gnit, the recklessly aspiring, self-deluded anti-hero of Will Eno’s ’Gnit‘—a so-so specimen of humanity whose problem-causing skills may well be his most pronounced ability.  Today he’ll disappoint his ailing mother, arriving painfully late at her bedside, full of excuses as usual.  Then he’ll get distracted, careening out of the house to disrupt the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, absconding with the bride as an angry mob chases him out of town and into the mountains.  So begins a lifetime of bad decisions, for Peter Gnit can’t stay put for long: he believes he’s on a mission to discover his Authentic Self.”

If that sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Will Eno’s “Gnit” is intended as a contemporary comic gloss on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.”  And, in fact, many of the Ibsen-based jokes work. I especially liked turning the trolls into a family of real-estate brokers, for example.  Unfortunately, many of those gags assume a familiarity with the plot of Ibsen’s play that most theatergoers aren’t likely to posses, at least here in the USA, so some of them fall flat.

That’s not the biggest problem with “Gnit,” though.  The real issue is the rapidity with which the title character’s self-centered cluelessness stops being funny and starts becoming annoying.  After two and one-half hours (including intermission), I found myself just wishing Peter Gnit would shut the hell up.  When the play takes a serious turn in the final scene, I no longer cared about Gnit enough to care that he had finally found something that looked a little like insight.

There’s enough comic material in “Gnit” for a good one-act, but at its present length the jokes revolving around Gnit’s selfishness start to get a bit stale.  Worse yet, Gnit behaves with such callousness in a scene towards the end with a disabled beggar that he becomes actively repulsive.

Script issues aside, though, “Gnit” benefits from a top-drawer cast.  Dan Waller’s Peter has the sort of wistful confusion I associate with the character of Joel in “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” Linda Kimbrough is acerbically self-aware as Mother, and Hannah Bos is sweetly self-sacrificing as Solvay.  Kris Kling and Kate Eastwood Norris display quick-change artist stills as a variety of Strangers and Danny Wolohan has a virtuoso turn as Town, playing multiple characters at once with nothing more than shifts in vocal tone and emphasis.  It’s a great example of theatrical illusion in action.

Les Waters’s direction moves everything along nicely and makes the most of the many gags.  Technically the show is fairly solid, although there were apparently some lighting and—judging from the offstage banging—set repair issues the night we saw it.

“Gnit,” in short, might need to go back to the workshop.  As it is, this is a very long evening at the theatre in which tedium ultimately overcomes the comedy.