The Paramount Center Mainstage never looks as vast as it does from the audience of "Vision Disturbance," a quirky two-hander from the New York City Players that is at the theater this weekend as part of ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing. That is because the audience is placed on the Paramount stage, looking out at the darkened hall. Obscuring the view is a large rectangular wall, made of plywood that is matched by an equivalent shape on the floor - a simple playing area that looks as though it was delivered a few hours early from Home Depot. (The design elements are by Adrian W. Jones.)
Onto that set come the play’s two characters: Mondo, a diminutive, middle-aged woman with striking bi-colored hair that makes her look like Morticia Addams if played by Maria Callas. Like Callas, she is Greek, with her slicked-back, black hair streaked with white, creating the closest to a visual effect this decidedly low-tech production can warrant. What might have made her hair turn white is an unusual physical affliction: small pockets of puss have formed in her left eye, causing visual distortions close to hallucinations.
This has brought her to the play’s second character - an imposing, a-bit-nerdy eye doctor (named Dr. Hull) she has come for treatment. He diagnoses her condition as something very rare, usually afflicting much older patients. "There is no cure, but it is curable," he tells her. In other words, it could fix itself in a matter of time. Laser surgery is an option, but there are risks. He takes a more holistic approach in treatment: suggesting that stress may be the cause and that music - classical music - may help in the healing process. She loves going to concerts by a local orchestra and has a beat-up piano, so she decides to try his suggestions.
But if you’re expecting some kind of alternate healing saga (like something from Oliver Sacks), think again. The music helps, but Mondo is a difficult patient and Dr. Hull’s treatment is unorthodox. Why for instance does he push his head against her neck as she stares up at the ceiling? Is he helping or just harassing? And how much does Mondo’s messy divorce fit into the equation? Also, what of Hull’s mysterious backache that leads to his addiction to certain prescription meds that lead to a professional crisis? "I feel pretty good," he tells the audience at one point. "Except I am kind-of lifeless."
Lifeless may be a way to describe the acting style that Linda Mancini and Jay Smith employ: they both speak in an affectless deadpan. For a story filled with big emotions and drama worthy of a Lifetime movie, the actors appear to be under the influence of the drugs Dr. Hull becomes addicted to. They are both obviously depressed (and who came blame them: just living in Reading, PA, where the story takes place, would appear to push anyone over-the-edge), and the play depicts both their isolation and odd bond.
Not to suggest that it is dull, "Vision Disturbance" gets under your skin. You may have to lean forward to understand the dialogue, but it is worth it. The conversations and monologues fit together to create an intriguing portrait of two individuals struggling through mid-life crises and how they come to help each other. It’s oddly touching, but also continually offbeat. In other writers’ hands it would be a commercial romance ("Educating Rita" came to mind). But playwright Christina Masciotti maintains a rigorously off-putting style, which is perfectly complemented by Richard Maxwell’s studied direction. The result is funny, curious, sad, and stays with you after leaving the theater. Mancini conveys Mondo’s dilemma in a cranky, yet sympathetic way; and Smith is drolly funny/sad as her doctor. Do they come together? To find out the answer may be a reason to visit the Paramount this weekend.
"Vision Disturbance" continues through Feb. 23 at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, the ArtsEmerson website.