On the surface, the plot of Victims of Duty, currently playing at the Exit Theater on Taylor, has all the makings of a gripping psychological thriller. I can even hear the (awful, awful) trailer voice-over in my head: “A fugitive from justice. A detective obsessed with tracking him down. And one man who holds the key, who will have to journey into the darkest corners of his own memory to reveal the terrifying secret.” Thankfully, a trailer already exists, and it looks like this.
As far as I’m concerned, there are only four names of any interest to me when it comes to Twentieth Century Theater, and they are Beckett, Pirandello, Stoppard and Ionesco (please remove your hat Herr Brecht, you’re blocking my view). Having done justice to Beckett’s Endgame, director Rob Melrose now takes on Ionesco, and the change of venue from the Travelling Jewish Theater to the Exit means the actors are practically in your lap, which is no doubt how the playwright would have liked it.
As a husband and wife playfully dissect the tired conventions of drama and speculate on the government’s recommended policy of detachment over coffee, a detective arrives on the scene, fulfilling one of the husband’s observations that all plays are comprised of an investigation. The fun of Victims of Duty is that there is no subtext: if the characters begin to speculate on what a new kind of theater might look like, it will be while they simultaneously go through the motions on stage (they are in a play after all, so why shouldn’t they?). There’s a happy literalization of every request and command. Prodded to delve into his psyche in search of information of the missing man Mallot, the husband Choubert takes us the long way around, dredging up all kinds of buried moments from his life. When the Detective tells him to dig deeper into his memories, Choubert, played by actor David Sinaiko, scoops at the air with his hands and wiggles around the stage, diving between the couch cushions.
Sinaiko gave such a virtuoso performance as Hamm in Endgame that I was excited to see that he was the lead in Duty. But Ryan Oden’s part is too good to be true, and he makes the most of it. The Detective is basically every cliché of the hard boiled investigator ever to appear in print or film. Driven and uncompromising, he’s a man who takes twelve lumps of sugar with his coffee. The actor’s comic timing is deadly. The wife Madeleine quickly lines up with the detective, as if she were a lodestone irresistibly drawn to the greatest source of power in a room, and actress Felicia Benefield deftly oscillates wildly between sympathy and disdain without missing a beat.
Ionesco can somehow manage to remove any serious consideration for the outcome of the central “mystery” and yet still entertain, presenting moments of real personal emotion, all while delivering a manifesto for the future of the stage. His plays are like some brilliant imaginary Literature class, where every time a student starts to make an observation, the professor tut-tuts them, “No, no, act out your ideas for us.”