Don’t Cockpunch the Messenger

“The god came back. Shortly afterward, the world ended.” That’s what Lauren Spencer tells us as the narrator and sometime bartender in Hermes, a new play playing at the Exit Theater in a No Nude Men production directed by Sleepwalkers Theatre artistic director Tore Ingersoll-Thorp. Spencer says this several times, in fact, handling the poetic repetition with grace and sparkling intelligence.

Carl Luciana, Julianna Egley, Geoff Nolan and Brian Markley in Hermes. Photo by Claire Rice.

Dressed in an elegantly simple purple dress (with no costumer listed in the program), she actually represents the Greek goddess Hestia, although she’s never called that by name. The god she refers to is the one of the play’s title, the messenger, trickster and general enabler of the Olympian pantheon, but aside for her narration the play doesn’t occupy an elevated, mythical space.

The spare set by Tanya Orellana consists of a small bar, a few utilitarian chairs and a few small video screens hanging above (representing airport seating). The first full-length production by playwright Bennett Fisher, Hermes is actually a completely contemporary story about US financial wheeler-dealers profiting off the imminent collapse of the Greek economy. It’s just that when the shell companies and bookkeeping shenanigans get farther and farther from any tangible, touchable assets, it finally gets to a point where Hermes shows up as if summoned by the mammoth unreality of the thing they’ve created.

We meet the Americans when they’re strategizing in the airport on their way to Europe. Anne (Julianna Egley) is clearly the hard-nosed alpha female of the group, although they’re operating on a game plan handed down by unseen superiors. They’re going to lobby various European government functionaries to sell them chunks of the Greek debt so they can profit when the European Union bails Greece out, although they have to portray the deal as helping the other parties manage their risk. Anne cautions the other that they have to spook the Europeans into action but can’t scare them so much as to endanger the bailout, or else what they’re holding will be useless.  It’s a delicate balance between a Big Bird approach and Chicken Little.

Gil (Carl Luciana) is at once smarmy and tentative, as if in slightly over his head, and Brian (Brian Markley) is the loud, boisterous old pro aggressively eager to show the new guy the ropes. When the three of them give the exact same spiel to different parts of the audience at the same time, it’s strikingly effective. When they’re not plotting or wheeling-dealing, they’re in the bar doing shots and patting each other on the back. Jack (Geoff Nolan) is barely more than a kid next to the others. His journey from nervous deference to the dark side feels like the heart of the piece, and his character becomes more and more unnerving as the story goes on.

And then there’s Hermes. Brian Trybom plays the god as a smirking surfer-dude bike messenger type in a yellow hoodie and winged sneakers who not only calls everyone “bro” but comes up with a different punning nickname every single time he talks to someone, either riffing on their name or more often on “bro”: “Broseph,” “Broledad Bro’Brien,” “Friends, Bromans, Countrymen.” He’s like Rob Schneider’s Copy Room Guy on Saturday Night Live, only much more belligerent. His signature move is faking someone out with a high-five and then punching him in the nuts. He’s intended to be an intensely annoying character, and succeeds way too well.

Pretty much the only thing Hermes doesn’t beat around the bush about is being a god, and interestingly enough the Americans don’t really seem to have any problem believing it. Much more relevant to them is the fact that he’s a dick. “I think he just wants to hit us in the balls and act like an asshole,” says Gil. “Mystery solved.” Once he shows up they can’t get rid of him, which makes it all the stranger when he finally does buzz off and one of the Americans actually seeks him out. Greed makes people do the most unadvisable things.

Insufferable deities aside, it’s an entertaining evening. The dialogue is snappy, the pace is brisk and the performances pretty solid. It’s a fine length for a play, 100 minutes with intermission, but when it’s all over it feels more like a promising first act. It’s an and-that’s-how-we-got-into-this-fix ending, and any resolution, in the play as in life, is as yet unwritten.

Through March 26
Exit Stage Left
156 Eddy St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #21 of 2011, attended March 10.

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