There is a big, guffaw-generating surprise in the opening scene of “Our Shrinking, Shrinking World,” Richard Dresser’s consistently clever one-act comedy, which is currently making its world debut at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. And there are many more surprises to come.
“Our Shrinking, Shrinking World,” which is directed by Joe Caraci, is the kind of comedy that is not just filled with funny lines, but is constantly pulling the rug out from under you, in a good way. You think you know where Dresser is going but then he goes somewhere else, adding a touch of absurdity to a play that is mainly about real people dealing with real, relatable problems.
Teddy (Jeff Rubino) is a cop who is undergoing psychotherapy because he has to, for professional reasons. His therapist, Dr. Hidalgo-Nyquist (Kevin O’Rourke), has a distinguished look and a calm, confident manner, but is treating him in an unconventional way. And Teddy’s no-nonsense girlfriend Katrina (Molly Carden), who works in a hospital emergency room, suspects that Teddy isn’t really getting anywhere.
They all live in a small, dead-end town where the weather always seems to be bad. The show’s taped opening music is The Animals hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”; John Mellencamp’s dour heartland anthem “Pink Houses” is heard later. The fact that all the scenes take place in a doctor’s office or a bar add to the sense of stifling claustrophobia.
The recently widowed Hidalgo-Nyquist is the town’s only psychotherapist. Until, that is, a rival (Dr. Carver, played by Kaileela Hobby) sets up a practice there. She seems assured and competent — at first, at least.
The show’s title has to do, of course, with psychotherapy. But it also reflects Hidalgo-Nyquist’s sense of existential dread, which he loves to drone on about. “Studies indicate that one out of every seven people doesn’t exist anymore in a meaningful way,” he says.
He denies another character’s assumption that this is some kind of manifestation of his own depression. “I’m not depressed, I’m concerned,” he says, referring to his belief in the impending death of mankind. “Anyone who isn’t concerned is living in a sad little dream world.”
To say that Hidalgo-Nyquist is stick in a rut is a major understatement. One of the play’s running gags has to do with his unseen receptionist, Maggie, whom he won’t fire despite her monumental incompetence.
“There’s no A.C. because Maggie forgot to pay the electric bill,” Hidalgo-Nyquist tells Teddy, at one point. “She just comes in for coffee and to make personal calls. She’s rude, unprofessional, abusive to my patients.”
“Why don’t you fire her?” asks Teddy.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” says Hidalgo-Nyquist. “She’s the glue that holds all this together.”
Indeed, all the relationships in “Our Shrinking, Shrinking World” are a little off. Teddy and Katrina love each other deeply but also have seemingly unresolvable differences that have resulted in them not marrying, despite being a couple for many years. The psychotherapists may be professional healers, but it isn’t long before we find out they’re in great need of help, themselves.
They also are wary of each other. “This town’s not big enough for two shrinks,” mutters Hidalgo-Nyquist, whose world has been turned upside down by the arrival of Dr. Carver — not just because she has destroyed his monopoly, but because she is as flighty and unpredictable as he is grim and stodgy.
Dresser shows great skill in building philosophical themes into “Our Shrinking, Shrinking World” with a light touch. There are lots of long, serious monologues and heart-to-heart exchanges in this play. But Dresser fills them with enough subtle humor and casually dropped revelations — things the characters reveal without intending to — to keep audience members on the edge of their seats.
A few scenes carry an emotional jolt, but Dresser doesn’t overdo the fireworks. This is mainly a play about people who are stuck, and frustrated.
It would not be wrong to call this play a dark comedy. But like in any comedy — or in any therapy session — there is some hope. And by the end, the four characters have inched forward, gaining a small amount of understanding and compassion to help them deal with the confusion that reigns over them — and, as Dr. Hidalgo-Nyquist would argue, tediously but amusingly, over all modern life.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “Our Shrinking, Shrinking World” through May 27. Visit njrep.org.
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