In the sublime "Any Given Day," Linda McLean captured the perverse way tragedy coexists with joy. In the terrifying "Strangers, Babies," she unraveled the enigma of how the past shapes the future. Now in "Every Five Minutes," in its world premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, she explores the fault lines of a fractured mind.
The Scottish playwright has a gift for unlocking the magic and horror lurking within the ordinary, the way that life can zoom from silly to shocking when you least expect it. In "Every Five Minutes," vibrantly directed by Loretta Greco, she turns the passage of time into a jigsaw puzzle in which we never quite figure out how the pieces snap together. If this intriguing 90-minute drama lacks the shattering emotional power of "Any Given Day" and the taut suspense of "Strangers," it's still a provocative odyssey through the elusive nature of identity.
McLean's plays are always essentially mysterious, partly because of her savagely dark subject matter and partly because she experiments with the connection between form and theme. Here she thrusts us deep into a spiral of memory and meaning that's always twisting out from our grasp.
At the core of the uncertainty is Mo, a tormented fellow played by the always magnetic Rod Gnapp. Draped by his lovely wife, Sara (Mia Tagano), catered to by his close friends Ben (Sean San José) and Rachel (Carrie Paff), Mo is a broken man, dogged by voices only he hears, plagued by nightmarish visions that threaten to drag him into oblivion.
While the narrative slips and skips back and forth in time so that we are never quite certain where these characters are in the long history of their relationships, it soon becomes clear that Mo has only recently been freed from a long imprisonment.
Seized from his home without due process of law, he has been tortured, deprived of sleep and taken to the brink of madness time and again for 13 years. When he returns home, he thinks he is finally free, but redemption proves to be an unattainable state of mind. He can never truly inhabit his own homecoming dinner party because the past won't let him go.
Ironically, Mo's eerie navigation between the real and the surreal, although etched with clarity by Gnapp, is never quite as gripping as it should be. Although it's shot through with explosive video projections and whimsical musical interludes, the play falls short of capturing the free fall of mental fragility. The ambiguity would cut closer to the bone if Mo's torment were more palpably evoked. The limbo of isolation doesn't generate enough dread here.
The specters that taunt him, including Bozo the clown (Patrick Alparone), Harpo Marx (Jomar Tagatac) and the Almighty himself, lack enough menace to be consistently unsettling. Of all the bizarre, shadowy apparitions that circle Mo, only a few, such as the towering ghost of his father, a coal worker black with soot, make a visceral impact. Certainly the subtitles, elliptical phrases that hint at what is now and what is then, distract as much as they illuminate.
The most evocative elements of this psychological thriller concern the more mundane lives of the people left back at home. Sharply observed and emotionally rich, the banter between Ben and Rachel, who go from frazzled parents of a toddler to shellshocked parents of a teenager, revels in great intimacy and grit. San José, Paff and Tagano ground the epic leaps in style and tone with penetrating performances.
The unknowable may be the heart of this drama, but it's the everyday that truly grabs the imagination in "Every Five Minutes."
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza.
By Linda McLean, presented by Magic Theatre
Through: April 20
Where: Magic Theatre,
Building D, Fort Mason
Center, San Francisco
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission