During two moments of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Really, the Girlfriend (Jessica Johnson) avoids conversation with her dead boyfriend’s Mother (Nancy Boykin) by staring at the water slowly cascading through a Brita filter. That repeated image mirrors what everyone in the audience at Theatre Exile already feels. We would find anything — even the slow drip of a faucet — more interesting to watch than the non-action of this play.
Really takes place at some point after the death of Calvin (Matteo Scammell), a photographer who has left behind an unfinished catalog of work after his sudden demise. His mother visits the former loft he shared with his Girlfriend (these characters don’t have names). Also a photographer, the Girlfriend sits the Mother down for a photo shoot, and the two avoid talking about anything of substance for the first 40 minutes of the play until mom bursts out “You didn’t love him correctly!”
Rather than follow such an outburst with a deeper look into the past, the talk sprawls onward for 30 more minutes to muse on artistic legacy, comparative talent among artists, finding one’s place in the world, and growing old. Boykin fills her monologues with great charm and expressiveness, albeit to deliver stories that teeter on the edge of boredom (about a telemarketer’s call, the pills she takes, etc.). Johnson’s few lines express both sadness and hope, the kind felt by the recently bereaved as they linger on a death that divides the remainder of life into before and after.
By itself, a photo shoot could offer an exciting premise. Patrick Marber’s Closer uses it to seduce and entrance the audience. But for the 70 minutes of Drury’s play, this device — which could peel back layers as it ramps up intimacy — offers no inroads for personal attachment, no reason to care, and little else but boring exposition. The flashbacks with Scammell prop him up as little more than a cutout of a successful if spoiled artist, bossing around the women in his life. Even Thom Weaver’s blindingly white set alienates, and Chris Sannino’s sound design agitates with quiet, low electronic tones that underscore scenes with a drone or screech.
Brenna Geffers’ direction skillfully navigates the overlap of past and present, but can do little to import excitement or value. In front and behind me, I heard yawns and that uncomfortable squishing of fabric on seats trying to conceal restlessness. I can only wonder what the season sponsors, perched in the front row, made of the effort their money endowed. Or if their thoughts drifted, like the slow run of water, to any concern that with more immediacy or interest, genuinely affected them.
By Theater Exile, through Feb. 18 at the Latvian Society, 5321 N. 7th St. Tickets: $10 to $50. Information: 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org