The line between being profound and being pretentious is so very fine as to be at times imperceptible. Alexander Borinsky's bleak comedy, The Polish Egg Man, tests the tensile strength of that line mercilessly in its first ten minutes. Then the play rears up, towers overhead magnificently like some mythological creature and tramples the line into oblivion. Ambitious to the point of being overreaching, bold to the point of being audacious, The Polish Egg Man consistently twists back on itself at the moment of failure and rescues the meaning from the mechanism of the play. Borinsky is acutely aware of the conventions of his script and the technical duties of the playwright, but that doesn't stop him from dandling the old requirements on his knee to make them new and young. The result is a very familiar story — young man loses young woman — revealed, but not told.
The young man in question is Angus, played with a straining enthusiasm by Christopher Hickey. His almost manic jollity is the key to his character; Angus is desperately trying to make his wife, Molly (Magan Wiles), happy. The couple has moved into a new home, rendered by set designer Philip Boehm as two blank walls flanking a large picture window. This minimal set doubles also as a picture frame, used to spectacular effect by the Polish Egg Man when he illustrates to the audience what has happened between Angus and Molly before we arrived.
The Polish Egg Man Through February 17. Presented by Upstream Theater at 305 South Skinker Boulevard. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students, $18 for seniors). Call 314-863-4999 or visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
Yes, there is an actual Polish Egg Man. Played by Alan Knoll with delectable comic timing and a rusty edge of menace, the Polish Egg Man operates both outside of and within the structure of the play. He addresses the audience, offering dramaturgical advice on how he could make the plot sadder, he interrupts Molly and Angus and instructs them to change they way they play a scene and, using the picture window, he offers us a peek into the immediate past. Director Wieslaw Gorski weaves the Polish Egg Man — who is a comically egregious reminder that you are watching a play — into the fabric of the story so very carefully and deftly that instead of being an intrusion, he becomes an allusive element of a story we are communally experiencing.
During the business with the window-cum-photo album, we see an argument flare between Molly and Angus on Molly's birthday, with the Polish Egg Man seated in the foreground. The fight crescendos, with Molly, as ever, inarticulately unhappy and Angus pushing too hard to change that and, as ever, failing. Slumped and rebuffed, Angus drops his head awkwardly, echoing the Polish Egg Man's own downcast silhouette in every line. The ineffable pain of loss is rarely so elegantly portrayed.
Despite the key role played by the title character, much of the play's power is delivered by Magan Wiles, who is performing what amounts to a double reading of every scene. In dialogue and action she is often comic, but always — always — a pall of unhappiness shadows her. She imparts bright and cheerful "I love yous" in response to Angus' constant, needy call, but the tilt of her head and the brittle way Wiles sets herself before she says it hints at the weight of maintaining the relationship. Wiles' deeply expressive eyes tell a different story from that of her words. Her inability to voice the internal is what the Polish Egg Man is showing us, and it is what The Polish Egg Man is about: Even if the other person could express succinctly and beautifully why they wanted to leave you, would the explanation be enough? Would the words salve the pain? Don't answer — it wouldn't matter anyway.