SOCRATIC DIALOGUE Hall and Woods.
Everyone does it, to varying degrees of success or defeat. The ancient Greeks did it to lofty philosophical purpose, although their reward for their most prominent proponent was a goblet of poison.
Talk, or more precisely speculative rumination, is the subject and substance of Carl Hancock Rux's Talk, which is being staged by Brown University's Sock & Buskin through April 17. Your appreciation of it will depend upon your enthusiasm for and success at those wee-hours freshman dorm gab sessions that attempted to unlock the secrets of the universe and display your wealth of arcane brain booty and rhetorical prowess. That and your leisure time.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, with two short intermissions, the play attempts nothing that could not be accomplished in half the time. The aesthetic and observational offering seems to be the process of the play itself, not any product. The medium, intelligent conversation, seems to be the message.
The setting is ostensibly an academic conference to discuss, and winkle out morsels of insight about, one Archer Aymes, the author of a single avant-garde book and a single, short, equally obscure film, who died young.
Fittingly, everyone but the Moderator (Kerry Hall), in tweed suit and bow tie, has a Greek name corresponding to someone Socrates conducted a philosophical dialogue with, as recorded by Plato. Jamila Woods plays Apollodoros, a self-described artist, "barfly, bitch," and "truth-teller," who sometimes provides clarifying, summarizing observations. (The historical Apollodoros was a pupil of Stoic philosopher Diogenes of Babylon.) Shawn Saunders plays a civil rights activist who marched with Aymes, Crito (a friend of Socrates, who spoke about justice with him). Alejandra Rivera Flavia plays a former lover of Aymes, an actress in his movie, Phaedo (a student of Socrates, at his deathbed, who discussed his argument that the soul is immortal).
Gordon Sayre has the flamboyant role of Meno, a self-impressed talk show interviewer who helped bring Aymes to prominence in the 1950s (in the dialogues with Socrates, Meno talked about human virtue). Competing with him for attention is Emma Johnson's character, Ion (a poetry performer who spoke with Socrates about the source of poetic inspiration), an animatedly opinionated biographer who claims authority on all things Aymes.
The actors are directed with canny vitality by Erik Ehn, who orchestrates the ebb and flow like Neptune poking with his trident, sending the characters hither and yon or slowing them to a crawl, depending on their exasperation or thoughtful concern. This is no small matter in a play that could be just talking heads.
All the actors do well, but Johnson as the biographer is a particular standout. That's not simply because her egotistical character calls gleeful attention to herself. Johnson lets us peek into this woman's thoughts, as we see Ion preen anew at fresh, erudite observations.
If Ion is smug, Meno is all but dislocating his shoulders from patting himself on the back for such things as introducing Little Richard to America on his talk show. Sayre plays him broadly, befitting the man's ludicrous sense of self-importance; the danger is our uncertainty over whether the performer or the character is overacting. Sayre eventually balances that nicely with a meditative soliloquy, as the man speaks quietly and earnestly about his admiration for the funny and sincere Steve Allen, the first host of the Tonight Show.