The Ensemble’s Stuck Strikes Poopy Gold

The laughs come both often and semi-stifled by a countervailing disbelief at Jessica Hatlo’s Stuck (at Washington Ensemble Theatre through April 9; tickets: $10-$25), as at least two gross-out moments exceeded audience expectations. Three older patrons got up and walked out, which I think is terrific. They could not handle the shit-stained truth.

Since this is a world premiere, I will try to avoid spoilers. That the humor is in part scatological should not be a surprise, given the set-up, which is that Amy (Kay Nahm) is stuck on the toilet, and her boyfriend Danny (Alex Matthews) doesn’t know quite what to do about it.

Playwright Hatlo ripped her story from the headlines, in case you’re inclined to cluck at the implausibility of it. But you don’t really need to know that. It’s not a freak-show, but mumblecore-meets-Kafka, where the extreme situation is used to meditate on what makes us wartsy humans. Amy and Dan are, in Hatlo’s hands, that floundering post-collegiate couple that if you weren’t yourself, you know well. Dan delivers pizza, falls asleep on a ratty couch with a comforter pulled up to his chin. Amy watches daytime, prime time, nighttime TV, between bong hits. They are all they’ve got, and that’s where the dramatic tension comes from.

Director Sarah E. R. Grosman gets a superlative performance from Alex Matthews, whose sweet, diffident Dan is always just keeping his head above the conversational waters. In the intimacy of the Little Theatre, he can offer a film actor’s vocal nuances, as if each sentence were a rocky slope he keeps sliding off, and let his face do the rest of the talking. He’s met by Nahm, who has a harder task–in her stuckness, she’ll become more and more unsympathetic to us, who, like Job’s friends, just want things to resolve and move along. Nahm never flinches.

The ambiguous snake in this garden of going-to-seed is property manager Celeste (Jill Snyder-Marr), who has more than a passing interest in Dan, and keeps maternally nagging at him to spruce himself up. Snyder-Marr’s conception of the older woman can be a little broad; I liked it more when she just played it straight.

Wonderfully, there are also the compelling Qadriyyah Shabazz and Chris Maslen, as multiple TV characters that come to visit-slash-haunt Amy as she begins to lose touch with waking and sleeping distinctions, the TV always on. This is another of Hatlo’s touches that are both hilarious and advance the narrative, if slightly crabwise. Nothing is that simple, here, despite what the TV says, but it’s also true that in life sometimes you have resolution thrust upon you. Hatlo tries to spin the final scene, but it doesn’t quite land–she’s already made her point.

The Ensemble has by now a storied history of set design, and Clare Strasser’s cramped, dingy apartment is no exception, action-packed with visual Easter eggs. Director Grosman has a lot of fun with surprise entrances, though there are still some blocking problems posed by the real-life premium on set space. Monty Taylor’s lighting design is notably unobtrusive, though vital, it mimics life so well, as does Skyler Burger’s sound design and Katie Hegarty’s costumes.