Playwright: Laura Wade. At: Steep Theatre, 3902 N. Sheridan. Phone: 312-458-0722; $18. Runs through: March 22
British playwright Laura Wade draws her title from Sophocles: 'When a man has lost all happiness, he's not alive. Call him a breathing corpse.' The old Greek was on to something profound, but Wade isn't quite up to delving into it. Her seven characters are discontent, dysfunctional and unhappy with themselves and relationships, but not so fundamentally disenchanted as to lack all happiness. Wade parades contemporary disaffection and boredom rather than deeply metaphysical despair.
Her circular 85-minute play jumps in time as each of its five intimate scenes carries over a character or situation from the scene before. Death is omnipresent: three characters discover bodies and two become bodies themselves. Thus, in Scene Two a storage facility owner discovers a murder victim in locker B16; in Scene Three we see the victim and the cause of death; in Scene Four we witness the locker facility owner's post-traumatic distress that leads to his suicide previously revealed in Scene One.
Breathing Corpses is grim—although sprinkled with quirky humor—but it's never tragic, and that's the limitation. The characters lack gravitas; they are silly people. Wade is a young author not yet of weight and depth, although her crisp dialogue technique shines. Wade provides fine opportunities for actors and a clearly focused director in a series of two-character and three-character scenes, most of which could be little one-act plays all by themselves.
Fortunately, Steep is deep in talented actors guided by the experienced director Robin Witt. Scene Three is the prime showcase, in which Lucy Carapetyan and Jonathan Edwards portray an attractive young couple bound by mutually inflicted physical violence, both sexual and asexual. The fury of their self-centered characters is both terrifying and titillating. Julia Siple opens and closes the play as a whimsical hotel housekeeper a bit too fascinated by the bodies she finds in the beds. In the final scene she meets a live one at last, yet despite their flirtation the play closes on an ambiguous note: Is her glow of happiness one of joy or merely excitement and potential danger?
Marcus Stephens' beige-and-yellow scenic design creates four distinct playing areas lined up across the wide but shallow stage, surrounded by corrugated steel panels—a la storage lockers—to suggest the constricting box-like rooms referenced by several characters. It's good-looking but limits the staging possibilities for several scenes that are self-consciously static.
The company use rather good British accents and yet there's nothing singularly British about Breathing Corpses—a few word changes and it could be American. This underscores the generic nature of this early Wade play. For real British despair, the late Sarah Kane remains the unbeatable champ. Perhaps Breathing Corpses is intended to be taken completely as comedy, and I didn't get it.