Missing, in Action

Blame Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road for filling the heads of bohemian and wanderer types with the bright idea of traveling cross-country: all those Benzedrine-riddled pages brimming with iconic strangers, sexual conquests and drinking partners. Driving through the lush green of the country, accumulating all of the various wisdoms and experiences that only travel can deliver . . . who'd reasonably say that a 40-hour-per-week grind-down in a job you hated was a real alternative?

Thoughts of bailing on the old to discover the new haunt most of us periodically, but with a wallet full of credit cards and a mailbox full of credit card bills reminding us our bank account has become their bitch, the best most of us can dream about is to wait and fill the rapidly approaching golden years with that hoped-for travel.

Emmett, the antihero of Julie Marie Myatt's engaging new play My Wandering Boy, doesn't wait to live his life. Leaving his snug suburban home, he goes on a walking tour of the U.S., video camera in hand, unblinkingly recording what he sees. It's a bleak picture—mostly footage of homeless men crowding the streets of Skid Row, melancholy families at the beach barely aware of one another, or just Emmett's feet methodically slapping the concrete—but with only his books and a diary as his companions, Emmett reads philosophy, charms strangers, fathers children, gives away his possessions and does exactly what he wishes, bringing together a host of different people all profoundly affected by the experience of having met him.

Playwright Myatt's low-key, insightful and funny script has much in common with Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher, which closed at South Coast Repertory last week: we get to know the absent Emmett, like the absent husband in The Piano Teacher, only through a series of short scenes and monologues directly addressed to us by his family, lovers and friends. We never actually see the person in the flesh. Both pieces are about the melancholy entanglement of memory, and both pieces feature the destruction of false dreams and the murky resentments that bubble up when others force us to face those misconceptions.

The seamless staging by director Bill Rauch and the leisurely pace of Myatt's writing give each of the seven members of SCR's tight ensemble their poignant moments, creating multilayered roles that build slowly to the haunting, picture-perfect images at play's ending. As Emmett's bickering parents, Elizabeth Ruscio and Richard Doyle are real standouts: a bleak suburban vision of a generation that considers self-knowledge foreign, self-indulgent and something to be avoided. Cleaning out her son's abandoned room, Ruscio's character sorts through an armful of paperback books—Nietzsche, Buddha, Marx—and says sweetly, "This is what really did him in."

In the end, where Emmett has gone is not as important as why; he's less character than construct. Equal parts troubling metaphor for life lived regardless of consequences as well as expectations not met, Emmett is a rejoinder to those of us who squander our lives controlling our environment when we should be embracing a chaos that flies in the face of conformity.

Nothing necessarily original in that thought. Nietzsche, Buddha and Marx aren't the only ones who have been saying it for centuries, but it's a message that bears repeating.

MY WANDERING BOY AT SCR'S SEGERSTROM STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; www.southcoastrepertory.com. WED.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M.; TUES., 7:30 p.m. THROUGH MAY 6. $20-$60.


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