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Off-Broadway Review: “The Underlying Chris” at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater (Through Sunday December 15, 2019)

Off-Broadway Review: “The Underlying Chris” at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater (Through Sunday December 15, 2019)
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Kenny Leon
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

A three-month-old infant named Chris looks up from his stroller at his thirty-something mother (Hannah Cabell) as she makes an appointment with his pediatrician for the next day at 11:15. Chris has twisted himself and possibly hurt his back after his big stuffed toy carrot hits him in the eye. Chris’s back injury isn’t the worst of his or his mother’s problems on that fateful day. Shortly after his father arrives home after work, he dies suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. This is scene one of twelve parsing the vicissitudes of life through the experiences of characters “underlying” the Chris who appears at the beginning of the play.

This isn’t Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.” This is playwright Will Eno’s twelve stages of Chris, the subject of his engaging but complex “The Underlying Chris” currently playing at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater. Chris is a ten-year-old black child (Nicholas Hutchinson) who fantasizes being the Chinese Olympic diver Jianguo Tong Wu. Chris/Christine (Isabella Russo) is a pubescent girl hospitalized with injuries from diving chatting with the physician who later becomes her adoptive father. Chris/Kris is a twenty-one-year-old tennis player (Lenne Klingaman) being interviewed on radio. Twenty-seven-year-old Chris/Christopher (Luis Vega) is a resident uncomfortable with medicine who, after meeting veterinarian Louise in a café, assists her in a procedure, marries her, and has a daughter Joan.

The characters continue to cascade through the decades – all suffering from those initial injuries of twisting the wrong way (an event not to be taken literally) and becoming fatherless (one of many tragedies that “stifle” growth). Chris is the therapist Kristin; the actor Topher (Howard Overshown); sixty-year-old Krista (Lizbeth Mackay) on a park bench with her grandson; the seventy-year-old Kit (Michael Countryman) at the DMV unable to renew his license because he cannot pass the vision test; the eighty-two tear old Christiana (Nidra Sous Le Terre) celebrating her birthday at a nursing home (where swaddled in a blanket “little Chris” rests in a stroller); the blind and almost-ninety Khris (Charles Turner) waiting for his physical therapy appointment “for his back;” and, finally, the Chris hosting his own funeral where a myriad of characters gather to pay their respects.

Under Kenny Leon’s keen direction, the eleven members of the cast grapple successfully with the multiple roles they play with distinction. Arnulfo Maldonado’s movable set accommodates twelve different and distinctive scenes lighted beautifully by Amith Chandrashaker. Dede Ayite’s costumes grace the ages and decades with appropriate style.

It would be easy to make the claim that Will Eno’s exploration of the interconnectedness of life is more confusing than complex. It is true that it is sometimes difficult to identify the characters surrounding the eleven manifestations of “Chris.” Some, in fact, seem extraneous to the playwright’s purposes. However, this accusation is only relevant if the viewer becomes overly concerned about logic, linear thinking, and the sensibleness of life itself. Perhaps it is easier to “blame the messenger” that to admit that life is rarely logical, more episodic than linear, and often populated by the surreal.

Let the images in “The Underlying Chris” roll over the bumpiness of memory and imagination and be prepared to see or hear something that becomes relatable or uncomfortable. It is at those intersections that the underlying Chris, “the formative minutes, the pauses, the speechless years, the little touches” of his life might just connect in redemptive and cathartic ways.


The cast of “The Underlying Chris” features Denise Burse, Hannah Cabell, Michael Countryman, Nicholas Hutchinson, Lenne Klingaman, Lizbeth Mackay, Howard Overshown, Isabella Russo, Nidra Sous Le Terre, Charles Turner and Luis Vega.

The creative team includes settings by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, sound by Dan Moses Schreier, and casting by Telsey + Company.

“The Underlying Chris” runs at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street) through Sunday December 15, 2019. For the full performance schedule, visit Tickets for “The Underlying Chris” are available by phone at (212) 541-4516, online at, or in person at the Tony Kiser Theater. Running time is 1 hour and 90 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Charles Turner, Lizbeth MacKay, and Nicholas Hutchinson in “The Underlying Chris.” Credit: Joan Marcus.
Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Thursday, November 21, 2019