Theater Review - PushPush's enigmatic The Black Glass deconstructs 21st-century obsessions

Haunting production views corporatism and pornography through a kaleidoscope

The audience can accept only a handful of things at face value in PushPush Theater's The Black Glass, an avant-garde thriller with noir overtones. Tim Habeger plays Donny Bentham, a successful home products executive who finds himself being blackmailed in the wake of a big promotion.

In his office in a Los Angeles skyscraper, Donny tells his half-brother Tommy (Brad Culver) and a pair of fetching femmes fatales (Corryn Cummins and Shelby Hofer) that he's received a pornographic email featuring his beloved daughter Joanna. Only it might not really be his daughter, since the clip appears to be from the future. Also, the women seem more like extensions of his anxieties than real people, since their names, "Dawn" and "Adana," sound suspiciously similar to "Donny." Oh, and he may have murdered Tommy at some point in the past.

Such an enigmatic, elliptical narrative risks leaving audiences bewildered but not edified. The Black Glass' mystique instead casts a definite spell over its spectators. Analogous to such David Lynch psychological thrillers as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the knotty work by playwright Guy Zimmerman takes an off-kilter perspective on such hot-button topics as pornography and corporatism and leaves the audience feeling unquestionably haunted.

"It's not a story or a drama so much as a single image," the characters repeat, referring to a tableau of two men standing in Donny's office overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. Donny reflects on his past successes and envisions futures of tragic failures that include being crippled, cuckolded, and complicit in his daughter's sexual exploitation. At one point Dawn says, "She's been making us all rich with her incessant fucking, we'll pretend." It's as if his imagination runs away with him until he snaps back to the initial image in the office, like his mind resetting itself.

The play touches on the power of pornography to drive technological progress and alter the human psyche. Effectively integrating video projection into the action, The Black Glass includes in its second half a series of close-up clips of Joanna wearing fewer and fewer clothes. Donny's visible anguish and the other actors' poetic speeches ("This is the betrayer's confession") significantly undercut the titillation factor.

Habeger tells the audience that The Black Glass is still a work in progress in anticipation of PushPush touring the show in Los Angeles and Berlin in early 2013. Despite its baffling narrative, it feels like a complete work. The four actors prove so accomplished and make such specific choices that they clearly know whom their characters are and what they're doing, even though the audience may only have a vague idea.

The Black Glass is PushPush Theater's first production since the company gave up its space at Decatur's New Street Arts. Apart from two nights at Nelson Street Gallery, it unfolds at the Goat Farm's Warhorse Café, a tavern-like, book-lined brick venue that's as cozy as the play's fictional setting represents corporate sterility. Different sections of the space are designated as the past, the present, and the future, with the audience encouraged to switch seating at the 70-minute mid-point. For fans of unconventional theater with ambiguous presentation but some pointed real-world commentary, The Black Glass can make itself comfortable in the future.