There's a delicious little shock of recognition, a sort of jolt of immediacy, at the beginning of Will Eno's Oh, The Humanity, in the first of its five short plays, where a tired and emotional coach lumbers out to front the assembled media and explain his team's appalling season.
"I never knew how hard 'hard' was until last year," he declares, the split image of a Dean Bailey or a Mark Williams or, most recently, a Brett Rattan: of a coach in the crosshairs. Even as he asks the press, absurdly, whether "new beginning" is a pleonasm, there is a touching authenticity to his loneliness and inability to express the totality of his failure as a human.
"We played some close games," he says, "some of them we were in right until the very end. It was the life."
In an interview from 2008, Eno explains how he used to be really attracted to girls who had allergies. "That look of kind of runny-eyed sniffling sorrow," he calls it. "For a time, that seemed like the right position to take, with respect to the world, but that time is gone ... I’ve just gotten really interested in life."
That neatly sums up the short plays in Oh, The Humanity: no more bleat-eyed heroines on the edge of an unlikely crisis; instead we get an interest in life, ordinary life. True, this interest has a definite philosophical quality, but it's one rooted in the here-and-now, in immediately recognisable situations. A man and a woman making videos for a dating agency. Another couple on their way to church. A spokeswoman for an airline. An attempt to re-shoot an historical photograph. Eno has a genius for pointing to the symbolic and universal in his situations without resorting to abstraction.
His characters are all, in one way or another, waiting, though without understanding why. The comparison with Samuel Beckett here is practically unavoidable, but Eno is a Beckett reduced to optimistic humanism, a New York Beckett, perhaps. In particular, there's a wonderstruck quality to the writing, as of someone in awe of humanity, willing to bask in the mystery of it all, in the paradox that we're so mysterious for ultimately not being so mysterious after all.
Act-O-Matic 3000 bring a fine cast who make the most of Eno's profound silliness. Kevin Summers as the Coach, Heidi Valkenbürg and Daniel Rice as the video-dating couple, and Bridgette Burton and Dan Walls as the churchgoers all manage to fill out this sense of human bafflement with convincing depth, but I feel that Dan Walls, as director, needs to take more risks at those moments where the script pushes its characters beyond mere manners. Summers, Rice and Valkenbürg all manage at times a kind of glassy-eyed sadness that is very affecting and comes close to suggesting this extension, but at other times the tone feels emotionally flat.
The space above Rue Bebelons is fairly domestic, though Lindon Blakey's lighting is mostly sufficient for Eno's dramaless dramas.
Act-O-Matic 3000's first production for 2012 is a happy experience – the cliché 'laugh-a-minute' doesn't go far enough – but perhaps the darkness is not brought out with as much success as the humour.