IOWA CITY — I imagine exit interviews stir up a swirl of conflicting thoughts and emotions. Whether one is leaving a position voluntarily or under duress, a conversation with a human resources person about one’s experiences at a job is likely to be awkward at best and downright demoralizing at worst.
Riverside Theatre’s production of William Missouri Downs’ “The Exit Interview,” part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, certainly set my thoughts and emotions aswirl. The play had its awkward moments and its themes are perhaps intentionally demoralizing, but it is nevertheless a darkly funny, thought-provoking piece of theater. Under the direction of Ron Clark, the six-person cast does a fine job with the challenging material.
The play opened Jan. 25. I attended the Jan. 31 performance and the show continues through Feb. 17.
Explicitly acknowledging its debt to playwright Bertolt Brecht (indeed, the play is something of a primer into Brecht’s theories of the theater) and fitting within the framework of “Theatre of the Absurd,” “The Exit Interview” is a play with a bleak worldview.
Its protagonist, Dick Fig (Scot West), insists on cutting through the veil of polite small talk to discuss substantive issues. He is infuriated by anything he sees as irrational faith and alienates those around him with his stringent rationality. The specter of an active shooter on the campus where Dick is attempting to muddle through his exit interview haunts the philosophical conversations that drive the play.
Dick’s primary questioner is Eunice (Jody Hovland), a woman who has faith in God and the best-selling self-help book “The Secret.” As she administers the exit interview, she spars with Dick over matters of faith. One of their extended exchanges in the first act was difficult to follow — either due to muddled lines or unclear scripting — but by and large, Hovland and West are very good throughout the play.
They are supported by four actors — Tim Budd, Maura Clement, Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers and Aaron Weiner — each of whom is called upon to enact multiple parts. All four are excellent throughout.
Budd shines as a Fox News host, a Catholic priest and a Mormon spokesman. Clement is hilarious as a mother horrified by Fig’s worldview and an evangelizing scientist. She and Hartsgrove Mooers, who is wonderful as Fig’s ex-girlfriend, share one of the play’s most provocative scenes in which they play mothers who suddenly wonder how they might acquire knowledge first-hand rather than through the (conflicting) media. Weiner has perhaps the most difficult character to play in the show’s closing moments, and while the script takes a particularly odd turn, he brings palpable emotion to the scene.
Shelly A. Ford’s set — including a large video screen — is simple but effective, and even manages to communicate the idea that the entire theater, right out to the lobby, is part of the play. Jenny Nutting Kelchen has done exceptional work with the costumes, which is essential for the four actors playing many different parts. David Thayer’s lighting design works well for a play that is self-conscious about the fact that it is a play, and Drew Bielinski’s sound design — particularly the offstage cheering of a doomed squad — is excellent.
At times, some of the targets skewered by “The Exit Interview” — Fox News, the Catholic church (although really faith of all stripes is under attack throughout the play) — seem a bit tired or cliched, and a few of the devices (real and faux product placements in the second act, for example) don’t entirely work. The play’s final image is ambiguous in a way that isn’t fully set up by what comes before.
Despite these concerns, however, “The Exit Interview” challenges audiences in a good way, asking us think rather than to be passive observers — and there’s a lot to think about while exiting this particular production.
What: “The Exit Interview”
Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
When: Through Feb. 17, 2013; 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $28 at Riverside Theatre Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org