Two prisoners of an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship, tortured daily for reasons they know not, ruminate on philosophical questions that result from their state of helplessness and ignorance. The dialogue, well-timed if not overly memorable, is at its best when it nimbly darts between the easy irony and dark humor that results when the men, one empirical and one sentimental in outlook, try to figure out the world around them and fail wildly. At worst, and more often, the speech is somewhat stilted and its rhetoric forced; the greatest irony in a show about problems of meaning-making is that it succumbs to the temptation of trying to sound clever. There’s also a problem in knowing how to take their clichéd situation; one of the prisoners, in attempting to understand the layout of the prison, points out that the world has a few basic structures that have proven themselves over time to work, and this logic is clearly borne out in the structure of the play, which can’t quite seem to decide if it’s playing with conventions of the genre or merely stuck in it—is the torture chamber of a prison in an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship a metaphor for life itself (“We come here involuntarily, we’re smashed daily, and our only escape is death”) or is it a literal setting, seemingly indicated by the grotesque appearance of a torturer delivering a detailed, beyond-gory monologue about the methodology of a murder? That said, “The Unseen” makes important if not original inquiries into what we can know and beautifully explores the kinds of religious and other anti-intellectual impulses that take the place of failed reason and empiricism, and it’s at moments very moving. Technically the show is sound, if not striking, with smart use of lighting that makes audience both prisoners and panopticon; but in the end, the ideas turn out to be far more interesting than the dialogue, characters and production as a whole. (Monica Westin)
At A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells, (312)943-8722. Through March 1.