The Private Lives of Eskimos
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 9, 2007
At the core of Ken Urban's new play, The Private Lives of Eskimos, is a taut and gripping contemporary techno-thriller—the kind of tale Hitchcock might spin were he alive in our electronic age. Marvin has lost his cell phone. When he dials the number, a strange woman answers. Now, Marvin has a very particular and personal reason why he wants his cell phone back (there's a message on it that he doesn't want to lose). So instead of canceling the phone and getting a new one, he keeps trying to make contact with this mysterious woman, who first says her name is Melissa and later says it's Anne. He thinks he's falling in love with her, because she seems to understand things about him that nobody else understands; things she learned from his cell phone. But she drags him unknowingly into a dangerous web of intrigue, with consequences that could be fatal.
In proper Hitchcockian fashion, Urban spices Marvin's story with an icy girlfriend who refuses to comprehend what Marvin is going through, a clueless pair of bureaucratic airheads (a cop and a co-worker) who similarly provide Marvin with no tangible aid (but do provide some welcome comic relief), and a sexy, mysterious, foreign-seeming Secret Agent ("Call me Priscilla," she tells him, and it's obvious that her name is anything except Priscilla). To give too much more away about the specific events that crash over Marvin like a tidal wave would be to ruin the surprises of The Private Lives of Eskimos; you need to see it for yourself.
This being a Ken Urban play, however, there's more going on here than just a neatly-plotted suspense adventure. (Though after 2 Husbands earlier this year, Urban's aptitude for building these remarkably twisty yarns suggests that, should he decide to shirk his responsibilities as a promising new American playwright—as one hopes he will not, there's a potentially lucrative future waiting for him in Hollywood.)
No, there's more to this: Eskimos, for one thing. The place where Marvin's trauma takes him, in his mind, is a black, bleak tundra that's inhabited by Eskimos, Eskimos who speak only in spam. (And indeed, all of their lines are taken from actual spam emails that Urban received or found.) There's a layered metaphor going on here, one part of which works quite beautifully—the profound desolation and aloneness that can follow severe loss—and another that's fascinating but, to my mind, not entirely successful, i.e., the notion that so much of what constitutes communication and connection these days is nothing more than empty air.
The relationship between Marvin and Melissa/Anne/whatever-her-real-name-is is the most interesting aspect of the play. Marvin stands in for all of us who look to our electronic devices for comfort and connection; his identity isn't stolen in any traditional way, but it's essentially usurped, stamped out, by this unknown woman who becomes the only thing real or valuable in Marvin's downward-spiraling life. His desire, and willingness, for a stranger to give him the things he needs at a moment of crisis run counter to anything commonsensical he or we can fathom, and yet they're entirely emblematic of the behavior of countless IM/chat/blog/MySpace/web-a-holics who search for meaning at their keyboards or keypads every day.
Eskimos is directed beautifully and carefully by Dylan McCullough, on a dazzling, spare, and witty set designed by Lee Savage; McCullough navigates the transitions between scenes and locales deftly, and the pace never flags as we're drawn deeper into Marvin's tangled tale and obsession. Three actors—Melissa Miller, Andrew Breving, and Carol Monda—play all of the people that Marvin encounters, including the parka-clad Eskimos who occasionally invade his thoughts. At the center of the play, in a sterling performance of grand controlled intensity, is Michael Tisdale as the increasingly troubled Marvin.
There's probably more weight given to the Eskimo metaphor than the play needs or can properly bear, but otherwise this is a terrific script, one that both entertains and provokes plenty of thought. The scary edges of cyber-/cellular-space are the next frontier for compelling storytelling, and I'm not sure anybody has realized them better on stage so far than Urban does here.