In “Intermission” — the one-act in the middle of Cutting Ball Theater’s evening of three short plays by New York experimental playwright Will Eno — two couples, one young and the other middle-aged, sit upstage facing the audience.
It is intermission in the play they’re watching — about a man dying — and, although strangers, the two couples begin making polite conversation.
By the time the play we’re watching is over, they’ve discussed the play they’ve been watching and how the artifice of theater itself affects them individually. They’ve also talked about death, and aging, and the ways we define ourselves and the nature of reality itself.
At the end, the older woman asks the younger if she goes to theater often. Lately, yes, is the reply. “Afterward,” she adds, “I never know what to say.”
Just so. This little gem is so funny and thoughtful — and Cutting Ball Theater’s ensemble (Danielle O’Hare, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, Gwyneth Richards and David Sinaiko) is so effortlessly attuned to the material and to one another — that it’s hard to do much more than take a deep breath and sigh.
Like the other two plays on the bill, “Intermission” is shaped by artistic director Rob Melrose with a delicate and knowing touch.
It’s bookended by two equally barebones and intriguing monologues.
“Lady Grey (in ever lower light)” is similar, structurally, to Eno’s “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” brilliantly staged by Cutting Ball in 2009.
Like “Pain,” “Grey” is a metatheatrical solo, in which an actor — O’Hare in a filmy, silvery dress — establishes a direct and unsettling relationship with us: alternately beseeching, quizzical, jokey, sarcastic and more.
Weaving together a confession of lost love and existential loneliness with a traumatic childhood show-and-tell experience, she’s an appealing figure fading away into, yes, ever lower light.
O’Hare’s performance is subtle and captivating, but her rushed and sometimes mumbled delivery (on opening night) made it hard to catch all of Eno’s text. And we want to hear it all, as it’s so dense with inventively manipulated language.
In the final play, “Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different,” Eno continues his witty exploration of life and death. A sole actor (a hilarious and energetic tour-de-force by Sinaiko) races through a quasi-Shakespearean seven stages of man.
In its quiet final coda, Mr. Theatre intones, “Pretend I am dying. ... Pretend that this is it.”
This provocative evening of theater is indeed it. Eno, who’s been called a Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation, is beautifully served by Melrose and Cutting Ball’s excellent cast.
IF YOU GO
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 10
Tickets: $15 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.cuttingball.com