theater review

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt Becomes Eno’s Gnit, and Turns Gnomic, Gnostic and Gnostalgic

From Gnit, at Theater for a New Audience. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Last year, while researching productions that were on indefinite pause, I saw a picture of the Gnit set. When the shutdown order came, Will Eno’s existential comedy had been only days from opening at Brooklyn’s Theater for a New Audience, so TFANA mothballed the whole production, leaving the set onstage. In the grainy cell phone picture, the theater’s ghost light made Kimie Nishikawa’s design look eerie and moonlit: a shadowy valley with two hills of mossy greenery rising sharply right and left, a painted backdrop, and a storybook wooden house. Bad things happen in fairy tales at night, I thought. What’s strange about the show, now resuscitated after its long hiatus, is that a Rip Van Winkle air still hangs around it. For its entire two-hour length and for a while thereafter, it’s disorienting, making you feel as though you’ve just woken up. How did we get here? How much time has gone by? Gnit may not have been about a pandemic when it closed, but it certainly is now that it’s open.

Long before the production was paused, Gnit was walking hand-in-hand with another world—the one in Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 verse play Peer Gynt. Eno hasn’t done a close adaptation; he’s taken more liberties than not, and he needles the excesses of the original. Ibsen’s hard-to-perform poem is a folklore-inflected picaresque, containing 40 scenes about a ne’er-do-well who travels the wide world avoiding responsibility (he dabbles in the slave trade, starts a shady church, impregnates a Troll maiden, etc.) only to return home to his long-suffering love Solveig, whose forgiveness saves him. At the time, it was an aesthetic breakthrough: a blow struck for Norwegian poetry, Kierkegaardian seriousness, and episodic maximalism. Those latter two make Peer Gynt kind of a chore to stage today. Also a chore? The icky-sticky stuff between Peer and Solveig. In the Ibsen, Peer finds peace at her breast, like a baby. “To the boy inside, you’re mother and nurse!” he cries, as she rocks him. Critically, objectively, thoughtfully … one barfs.

So you can understand why Eno’s version gets the heck away from Ibsen. Eno is a normcore surrealist — his works include masterpieces like The Realistic Joneses, Thom Paine (based on nothing), and Middletown — and a specialist in the way modern discourse is, to paraphrase the Joneses, people hurling words back and forth. Eno has therefore cut away much of the play’s core to turn the central character into the American Peter Gnit. He’s done some sly fusions, like giving all the crowd scenes to a single character called The Town (an impressive David Shih), who has long bickering conversations with himself. But Eno’s cuts also go deep. Gone are Ibsen’s rhyming couplets, the emphasis on salvation, any mention of Hell or divine punishment. Gone too is the smushy ending. Both Peer Gynt and Gnit critique individualism; in both plays, any guy who says “I’m on a journey to discover … the authentic self” is a selfish creep. Yet Eno does his critique without resorting to faith-based arguments. His Gnit is a Passion Play without God, an atheist’s Pilgrim’s Progress. More than the actors’ deliberately deadpan delivery or Eno’s wrong-foot humor, this explains the show’s weird, flat affect. The original Peer is a man playing tug-of-war with redemption. In this version, nothing’s holding the other end of the rope.

Joe Curnutte plays Peter, a blonde, blithe, self-involved guy who is catnip to women. His mother (the superb Deborah Hedwall) knows him for a liar but loves him anyway; his beloved Solvay (Jasmine Batchelor) meets him minutes before he abducts a bride from her wedding, and then she loses him after another woman shows up with a baby he’s fathered. Both of these rival ladies are played by a sublimely comic Christy Escobar, and many of the goofiest jokes in the play stem from the way the six-person company plays a cast of dozens, hurling themselves in and out of Ásta Bennie Hostetter and Avery Reed’s costumes. Jordan Bellow crosses through, holding a bottle of milk, then crosses the other way a second later, as a totally different character. “Who was that, do you know?” asks Peter. “The handsome guy with the milk?” Bellow responds. After a while, all this casting trickery seems as though we’re seeing with Peter’s own uncareful eye, which perceives everyone who isn’t him as less than real. (It’s also a good excuse for people to do accents.)

Gnit is an odd night at the theater, full of suspended understanding and puzzled laughter. Eno writes droll, sorrowful jokes that land late enough that your mind doesn’t have time to be amused or upset. These not-jokes often take the form of people saying something serious and the listener simply not caring. Peter tries to tell a reporter (Bellow again) about the way he feels unmoored. “I’ve gone through my life like a person cutting through a train station to stay out of the rain,” he says. The reporter, dashing down notes, listens with half an ear. “Yeah, no, that’s pretty good, quite the poet — wow. It does go pretty fast, doesn’t it.” He pauses. “I have to run.” Gnit is the story of a soul’s journey through life, but it’s mostly preoccupied with the awakenings of middle age: realizing you have been cavalier with other people, that nothing is an excuse for self-absorption, that your mother will not always be there to return to. The show cracks its own heart on this last point. Peter stands by his mother as she dies, and for once his prattling stills. “What do you say? A person says what?” Peter asks, and the show takes an intermission because it just doesn’t want to go on anymore.

Director Oliver Butler has worked with Eno before on the revival of his Thom Pain, and the mood of that even bleaker piece seeps through Gnit. Before the show starts, Butler keeps the room quiet. There’s no preshow music, which means the audience speaks in whispers. Once the actors appear, they speak clearly but softly too. Butler doesn’t ask his actors to work for laughs, so the whole thing has a kind of shrugging diffidence — it’s the sort of show that makes you lean in, that trains you to watch it. It’s a shadowy, quiet show. There’s even a mysterious figure called The Middle played by a shadow. “Call me peace, or death. I’m what you can’t handle,” the shadow says. “And I’m not actually real, so you’ll never get over me. Just try to live with me.” I am trying to imagine what all this would have meant to me if I had seen Gnit as planned in March 2020. Would have it seemed so explicitly a self-flagellation over white male self-regard? (Curnutte is the only white guy in the show.) Would it have struck me as funnier before a shadow swallowed up the whole world? Perhaps I need to return to it when I get myself together a little bit more. Gnit is a satire about the absurdities of self-confidence, and right now it doesn’t have a lot of meat to feed on. I kept thinking of that set, dreaming all last year. The show woke up — but our confidence is still back there somewhere in the ghost light, still asleep.

Gnit is at Theater for a New Audience through November 21.

Gnit Riffs on Peer Gynt, Turning It Gnomic and Gnostalgic