Yet it’s in the midst of that scene, after 40 minutes of undifferentiated snark, that the tone turns sharply. This is in part the result of the lovely performance of Nidra Sous La Terre as Kristin but also in part because Eno, seemingly having completed his structural work, has begun to pay more attention to character. Or perhaps we have finally mastered the trick of porting our feelings from one Chris to another instead of letting them fall into the ditch between incarnations.
In any case, from here on out “The Underlying Chris” becomes deeper and clearer and, paradoxically, more mysterious. Replacing the cut-glass sarcasm are more feelingful interactions about things like the human soul: “the part of people that moves through the world and changes but also lasts,” as Kristin describes it. The play also deepens because death, treated flippantly in the early scenes, now takes root in the characters’ lives; the bare branches of Eno’s trick structure sprout leaves.
That’s almost literally the case in an astonishing sequence in the second half of the play, when the director Kenny Leon seems to have found its poetry at last. Divorced and 50-ish, Topher (Howard Overshown) is appearing in an amateur production of a ridiculous play. Yet despite the wooden acting and two-dimensional trees, real feeling arises from it — and then much more beautiful and three-dimensional trees arise, too, as we transit to a verdant park. (Arnulfo Maldonado is the set designer.) Topher is now Krista (Lizbeth Mackay), a white woman in her 60s, and we begin to see how each new Chris grows richer from the past ones, even as each also grows feebler, heading toward the next.
By the time Chris reaches his last three embodiments — rendered with deepening pathos by Michael Countryman, Denise Burse and Charles Turner — you may find yourself, as I did, on the verge of tears and then past it. (“The far verge” is Eno’s apt phrase.) Much as in his play “Wakey, Wakey,” about a man in hospice, the long shadow of death softens cleverness into wisdom and wisdom into love. “It’s quite an honor to be born,” says a character at a funeral. And speaking to yet another new baby, Kristiana, 82, says, “A long line of creatures marched out of the sea so I could hold you right now.”
Lines like that demonstrate Eno’s great leap in “The Underlying Chris”: His structure has become expressive, a complex means to a moving end. He’s also giving actors a lot more to do than twist themselves to fit a baroque format, and one of the joys of this production is the wonderfully diverse cast of journeymen New York actors each given multiple big chances to shine.
That, too, is a sign of the play’s expressiveness: For all its disasters, life also gives us multiple big chances to shine. Perhaps the play’s flaws are expressive as well. Its wooden first half may be part of the puzzle Eno is dramatizing: Why is it that in our youth, with possibility everywhere, the world seems so flat and impenetrable? Just when we get to love it too much, when we finally see how connected we’ve been to everyone else all along, we have to start saying goodbye.
The Underlying Chris
Tickets Through Dec. 15 at the Tony Kiser Theatre, Manhattan; 212-541-4516, 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.