"The Exit Interview" may be one of the most up-front, honest plays you ever sit down to watch.
It's also bound to be one of the most baffling, with its omnibus of conversational and philosophical themes crash-landing on top of the two main characters, 24 additional characters (performed by just four actors), and slogan-filled banners across the stage.
None of that intimidates John Caywood, director of Salt Lake Acting Company's Utah premiere of William Missouri Downs' everything-but-the-kitchen sink drama.
"I have a whole gang of actors here to help," Caywood said. "I'm not alone."
"The Exit Interview" is not likely to leave audiences alone, either. Its relentless, in-your-face tour of topics not discussed in polite societynamely, religion and politics, but also love and death, religious leaders and cheerleaders. These themes weave their way through main character Dick Fig, a young college professor who recently lost his job, as he takes his exit interview with Eunice, a minor figure in the college's human resources department.
"I'm being pink-slipped because of budget cuts and talking about the weather isn't going to make me feel better," Dick tells Eunice.
Eunice, though, is forever his polite foil. "Just remember that when God closes a door he opens and skylight," she tells him.
But even that straightforward exchange is preceded by a barrage of cheerleaders' dialogue. Three "experts on underwear," three "Bertolt Brecht announcers," two women with baby carriages and a cast of misfits and media figures follow.
Cynthia Fleming, co-executive producer of Salt Lake Acting Company, said Downs' play was on the lips of every theater professional during the 2011 National New Play Network conference in Philadelphia. She read the script and felt similarly beguiled and charmed. Production of the play marks Salt Lake Acting Company's continuing participating in the National New Play Network Rolling Premiere project promoting daring new theater works.
"It attacks everything we believe in," Fleming said. "And at the end of the day, what can or do we believe in? We related to this play so much, and already we've had an exceptionally fun time."
Fleming, along with SLAC's producing director Keven Myhre, said the company calls on Caywood whenever it selects a play "with a dark, cynical look."
That sentiment reaches its fullest expression when it ventures toward the media, in a pivotal scene with Fox News broadcaster Walter, played by local actor Terence Goodman.
"War is better than peace, violent protests better than nonviolent sit-ins, louder better than soft, emotion better than reason, L. Ron Hubbard better than Buddhists," Walter tells a woman whose son was spared in an accident, all while texting.
Actor Darrin Doman, who plays Dick Fig, said that the character fascinates him for his dislike of small talk. Inconsequential conversation is something most people begrudgingly engage in out of good manners and even sometimes necessity, but Downs' script often revels in the humorous downside of what can happen when people say what they really mean.
"He's a character who can't decide if he's ahead of his time, or just a nerd," Doman said.
Eunice, meanwhile, attempts to fill the vacuum of Fig's doubt with bromides and aphorisms that go over like lead balloons with him, but litter the audience with comic grenades.
"It's an easy play to comment on," said actor Nell Gwynn, who plays Eunice. "You can't do that, though. The audience will handle that."
Downs' play is rife with so-called "Brechtian" conventions of modern theater. It takes audiences out of the story-line to make them think of the story-line. Actors often address the audience directly. But "The Exit Interview" is not modeled on any one work by the famed German playwright. Thankfully so, said actor Marin Kohler, who plays the five characters of "Actress No. 1."
"A lot of people don't realize the influence of Brecht," Kohler said. "And yet I'm so happy this is not a reworking of a Brecht play. This play by itself is enough to chew on and enjoy."
'The Exit Interview'
When • April 10-May 5. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $15-$42. Call 801-363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org