Chris has a crappy childhood—several, actually. First dad dies, then mom, and then a diving accident lands Chris in the hospital. The legal guardian takes off with an ex-boyfriend, and Chris is adopted by the doctor assigned to treat the concussion.
But The Underlying Chris, a new play by Will Eno, is a cradle-to-the-grave affair, and we also see Chris in medical school, married, divorced, in dotage, and finally dead. Though the narrative is consistent and linear, a new actor plays the part in each scene. Thus I have refrained from using gendered pronouns. Alternating between men and women, Eno gives us ten versions of Chris (or Kris or Christine), from a precocious if slightly melancholy boy (a stellar Nicholas Hutchinson) to a lonely, old woman (Denis Burse) celebrating another birthday in a retirement home.
Director Kenny Leon, fresh off the best production of this year, keeps the conceptually innovative material grounded, clear, and precise. The scenes, comprised of actors who have or will play Chris, mostly deal with questions of quiet grief. Regret is a consistent theme, even when the character is in their teens: the diving accident forces Chris to give up a passion, which she, as a teenage girl, replaces with tennis. She proves successful, but an idiosyncratic and fast-paced interview with a glib talk show host reveals no more of her identity.
In fact, what’s missing from The Underlying Chris is the underlying Chris. Eno’s life-spanning approach offers interesting if morose conclusions about the poor decisions that haunt us across decades, but it fails to provide much in the way of insight into Chris. Perhaps this is deliberate. When Chris complains to the talk show host that they haven’t spoken about her Science Expo, he replies, “People extrapolate. They’ll fill in the blanks with their own lives.” I can only speak for myself, of course, but I did not. The acting, it should be noted, is superb across the board, positively bursting with warmth, even if the character often refrains from emotional expression. The writing, however, left me feeling a little cold.