Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss is a game, but of the deadly variety. First, there is an investigation for a missing woman involving a cat-and-mouse chase, which drives the action. But in this play set in an anonymous German city, revolving around a trio of displaced Serbians, there is also a more subtle game of “odd one out” where identities and allegiances add social and political shades to the suspense.
Abyss (Brandung) premiered at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater in 2013, and has had a long life since then, with productions in London, Toronto and now New York. The English translation is by Milisavljevic, who has been rewriting the work for each new audience. In Maria Mileaf’s agile direction of Abyss for The Play Company, the murder mystery offers rich enough sport once the elliptical text finds its footing, but in the context of the current world refugee crisis, I found that Milisavljevic’s oblique commentary on Germany’s contemporary ethnic patchwork provided more gripping distractions.
The odd one out here is the missing Karla: in tastes, age and interests, she is like her boyfriend, Vlado, and two best friends, Sophia and her sister (who is also the play’s narrator), but she is red-haired with green eyes and freckles. She is a cute “cliche,” they all agree, and she is German. Her former companions are dark haired and blue eyed with dark pasts to match: Serbians who, we glean, survived the Kosovo War as children but are still haunted by violence they can barely articulate. Karla has been missing for three days when the play opens, and it will take an agonizing month to find out anything more about her. During that wait, her friends will discover instead that they have very different methods of coping with her absence, and very different motives for wishing her return, or not.
Unraveling the mystery of her disappearance takes them on a dead-end chase into more territories of tenuous belonging and franker exclusion. The German police remain deaf to the friends’ request to investigate, forcing them to take matters into their own hands, via the city’s Russian underground where Vlado has a connection. There, they locate a homeless man (whom the Serbians call, with some distaste, The German) who is being helped by some Russian women. The more integrated Serbians are out of place in the Russian’s clandestinity, but when, together, they confront The German about what he knows, he is another odd man out among the immigrants. A love triangle formed by “soul mates” Vlado and the narrator, plus Karla, and another comprised of Vlado, the narrator and her boyfriend Jan, are more variations on the theme, where the Serbians, bound by the things they have seen and the ones they have lost, make the rules in ever tightening circles of self-protection.
Suffering and loss is at the root of these mysterious characters, who are haunted by profound chasms of grief and dragged dangerously by waves of memory, but Mileaf’s production, though quick on its feet with a minimum of props – plays it safe. Neil Patel’s clean, white set and Matthew Richard’s equally monochromatic lighting bathe the play’s enigmas and thickly metaphorical writing – which includes regular asides about how to kill, skin, cook and preserve a rabbit – in a clinical glare. The action seems placed at the morgue from the get-go.
The three-strong cast takes on these games’ many players with uneven inspiration. Nicole Balsam’s Sophia acts inexplicably like a moody teenager but as The German and various Russians, she turns in strong, physical performances that carry several scenes. Flora Diaz is solid as the controlled and controlling narrator but Carter Hudson is more convincing as boy-next-door Jan than as the troubled and scarred Vlado, whose imagistic language of blazing house fires and sunsets fizzles in Carter’s mumbling delivery, when it seems it ought to scald us to the bone.
Vlado’s abyss is where the ocean floor drops off into unfathomable depths and where the prudent swimmer stops. It is the other side of that razor’s edge between the known and the unknown, reality and madness, order and chaos. The Play Company’s Abyss wades only waist deep into those churning waters, but it might have better played at another game, taken the dare and dived in.