It’s the playwriting trend of the day: take an uncomplicated plot laced with familiar themes, add a narrative twist, and then deliberately muddle the storytelling by way of loopy chronology, meta-theatricality and replayed sequences of dialogue. I can immediately name two contemporary writers who have followed this trend to qualified success and one of them is Noah Haidle. His outré play—a Goodman Theatre world premiere capping off its limited run this weekend—is “Vigils,” and the director faced with the Sisyphean task of making this structurally challenging play work for an audience is Kate Whoriskey. She’s only partly successful, the problems having to do more with the play’s dramaturgy than with its production, and yet “Vigils” is noteworthy for Haidle’s highly theatrical and whimsical playwriting voice, an irreverence for traditional structure and fearlessness with form—he’s the playwriting equivalent of a child unafraid to color outside the lines—that may alienate more literal-minded audiences. Concerning a widow unable and unwilling to let go—literally and figuratively—of her dead husband’s soul after two years (she traps it in a box), “Vigils” boasts a character known as the Soul that provides narrative, counterpoint and humor to the punchy proceedings, especially when his widow tries to date again, unsuccessfully. Thematically, there’s nothing new here, especially if you’ve seen anything by Chekhov: lamenting the past; only flirting with the future; not coping with the present. But people grieve differently, and if time stands still and/or limps along like a wounded dog for some, for the characters in “Vigils” it loops around and around, echoing their obsessive mourning. Haidle’s playwriting pyrotechnics, excitingly evoked by Whoriskey’s atmospheric and painterly production, may lack the poignancy to imbue this bittersweet comedy with the memory-play melancholy that just sits above its surface. But it is never pointless, and serves as a guidepost to an exciting new voice in the theater. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
“Vigils” plays at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800. through Nov 12.