It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later (at St. Ann's Warehouse through January 29)
The English comedian and storyteller Daniel Kitson — small, balding, bespectacled, and suspendered, with a billowing, folkloric beard — looks like a Brian Froud woodcut and speaks in a torrent of smooth-bore wit (by turns iconoclastic and bewitchingly sentimental) broken only by the occasional explosive stutter. This isn't craft: Kitson really does stutter. He also gets thrown off by audience fidgeting and occasionally stops in midsentence to complain about the fit of his trousers. His concentration seems as flawless as his superbly wordspun monologues, but it's fragile as sugar-glass — he can't abide distractions, or so he says. ("I don't have the skills," he pleads, which sounds less than convincing coming from such a mesmerist.)
Kitson tells his story amid a frozen nebula of incandescent bulbs — a sort of freeze-frame Big Bang, each glowing filament representing an ordinary moment in the ordinary lives of his principal characters, two remarkably unremarkable folks: a wife-and-mother named Caroline and a lonely near-hermit named William. William's arc of existence is mapped backwards, death to birth, and hers is told forwards, but don't worry, Kitson assures us: This isn't a love story. It's a life story, and its chief fixation is on the little moments like childhood injuries, "bullshit" first dates, the dawning epiphany that "teenagers are dickbags," etc. It's these motes of downtime, always slipping through our fingers, that interest Kitson and bring out his hyperarticulate, slightly Asperger's romanticism: He wants to slow down or even stop the non-events, hold them in place, examine and treasure them. Even his trademark stutter, when it occasionally asserts itself, seems to be a side effect of this braking mechanism, a temporal flutter straight out of Doctor Who. Kitson is a fierce humanist, absolutely anti-ethereal. He's not out to forestall death — there's a great deal of Death in It's Always Right Now — but to elongate and enhance every precious data point of life. I've come rather late to the cult of Kitson (The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church felt, to me, mostly just interminable) but you can consider me a convert. This is one of the brighter stars in the theater firmament right now and not to be missed.
Outside People (at the Vineyard through January 29)
Zayd Dohrn must've been steamed when he read the logline for Chinglish: His is a competing play about a naive, new-to-Beijing American (Matt Dellapina), his mysterious Chinese English tutor (Le Jun Li), a seemingly insurmountable language barrier, and reckless hopes for improbable second chances in the go-go churn of modern China. But here the similarities abruptly end: Dohrn's play is darker and simpler than Hwang's, lacking both its lyricism and its Broadway-friendly pedantry. The characters speak the choppier, brusquer banter of a younger and more results-based generation, and the basic story — is this love or a transaction? — is basic indeed. But Dohrn throws bold elbows, parcels out his characters' (sometimes unaccountably delayed) epiphanies sparingly, and touches down on a satisfyingly grim note. He's aided by a fantastic bilingual cast (including an explosive turn from Nelson Lee as a hip, shifty, culturally bipolar Beijing power broker) and the fluid direction of Evan Cabnet, who, with sound designer Jill BC DuBoff, has crafted a clash-of-civilizations soundtrack so spiff it ought to be on sale in the lobby.
How the World Began (at Playwrights Horizons through January 29)
When you're as fine a writer as Catherine Trieschmann (crooked), and you find yourself shooting fish in a barrel, the temptation (I'd imagine) is to arm the fish and encourage them to shoot back. That's more or less what's going on in How the World Began, a small culture-war dialectic that pits weary urban expatriate Susan (Circle Mirror Transformation's Heidi Schreck, now an expert in fugitive coastal basket cases) against a passel of Kansans in a tornado-ravaged, Joplin-esque community. Susan teaches biology, which puts her at odds with Micah, a traumatized student (Justin Kruger) orphaned in the storm. Micah believes Susan's insulted his religion, calling it "gobbledygook." Susan first denies the charge, then attempts to defuse it, and finally, furiously defends it: Trieschmann amps up the intensity with a steady and pitiless hand. The play is unmistakably in conversation with itself: You can really feel Trieschmann stacking the deck to get where she needs to go. Micah, ferocious as he is, remains a literary invention, if a vivid one, and his sometimes-guardian Gene (Adam Lefevre), as a canny, deal-making heartland type, also feels more like a collection of carefully curated Red State tropes. But then, Trieschmann is no cultural anthropologist: She's a playwright, and a damned good one. Taking those duties seriously, she funnels us toward a real neck-snap of a conclusion — the earth shakes a little.
Chimera (at HERE through January 28)
Jennifer Samuels (Suli Holum) is her own twin: It's a medical phenomenon called chimerism, where one embryo is absorbed into the body of the other before birth. Parts of Jennifer are Jennifer; parts are other. She doesn't know which is which — or which part gave birth to her son (also Holum), who's genetically dissimilar — and it's driving her crazy. The exquisitely designed and precisely enacted Chimera isn't quite certain what it is, either: Is this an autopsy of the illusion of selfhood, a comment on the dual nature of performance, or both? Or other? The show's many elusive, sometimes overwritten feints make it hard to tell, and occasionally hard to care. Stylishly done and often eerily icky — Jennifer, a workaholic gene researcher who feels lost in her own spotless suburban kitchen, disappears down the garbage disposal, emerges from the cabinetry, finds herself slimed in a patina of twitching chromosomes. But when she's playing the purring, amplified narratrix — is this Jennifer's consumed, chimerical twin talking? — she does so with such crazed, mad-scientist intensity, the effect is instantly distancing, and perhaps a bit irritating. I'm not sure what Chimera is, but I liked it ... part of the time. Part of the time, I found it merely clever. Two opinions, at war inside one critic: Maybe I ought to get tested?
Leo (Playing at Theatre Row through February 5)
Tobias Wegner relaxes on the floor of a bare room, his valise beside him. Across the stage, on a screen that's exactly to scale, he's leaning against a wall. What a difference 90 degrees makes. Dueling, stereoscopic opinions on gravity are the raison d'etre of this amusing hour of light acrobatics and optical illusion, which feature Wegner "standing" when he's actually climbing, "sitting" when he's suspending himself, and eventually interacting with a cockeyed perpendicular universe of objects he draws himself on the blank wall. (This opens up a new box of surprises, which I won't spoil.) There's not much more to this Edinburgh darling than that, but what there is is pleasantly impressive enough.