I’m not really sure how to write about Will Arbery’s mystifying yet utterly engaging (and strangely funny) play Plano. It’s the kind of play – and, under Adil Mansoor’s smart and surehanded direction, the kind of production – that rapidly sweeps you into an off-kilter, reality-adjacent world, one in which time operates by a different set of rules, characters divide and separate, and family curses manifest in the form of slug invasions and faceless ghosts.
The play centers on three sisters: Anne, the oldest (Lisa Velten Smith), Genevieve, the middle (Julianne Avolio), and Isabel, the youngest (Moira Quigley). They live somewhere near Dallas; Plano, where all the “big-haired boob ladies live,” is not far away, and is a site that is both magnetic and repulsive in the world of the play. Anne is a professor who meets and marries Juan, whom she calls John (Jerreme Rodriguez); Genevieve is a sculptor, married to Steve, who is/was a cultural arbiter in Dallas (Tim McGeever); Isabel does charity work and is a pious Catholic. The sisters have a mother, Mary (Carey Ann Spear), and an absent father who looms in their psyches; unbeknownst to them, they are also haunted by a faceless ghost (taylor knight).
Many “normal” things happen in this play: Anne has a baby; Steve and Genevieve divorce; Isabel moves to Chicago, becomes ill, and returns to Dallas; John/Juan spends most of his time in Plano frequenting gay bars. But none of these form the spine of narrative or plot; instead, they mostly serve as anchors that tether the play’s uncanny weirdness to recognizable life-events. And the weirdness gets very weird indeed, particularly where the men are involved: both Steve and John/Juan have multiple versions of themselves inhabiting the world of the play, and at one point the three sisters beat Steve to death (in a gloriously comic bit of fight choreography staged by Randy Kovitz), only to have him come back to life again and again. The faceless ghost – who is silently reading Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle at the opening of the play – is an omnipresent male presence, one that also multiplies into a palpable threat to the sisters and their mother near the end of the play.
A key to what Arbery’s up to with this play comes when Anne floats her theory that “lives have form . . . but the form disintegrates, and every moment either multiplies or disappears. . . . we’re ghosts of ourselves, like we’re dying and coming back . . . and when we come back, we’re a little warped, a little stranger, and there’s no way out, we’re trapped in a disintegrating loop.” In the world of this play, “having a family is a haunting,” the past and present are always coeval and in constant conversation, and the scars of childhood never heal. That’s probably true of real life, too; but in real life we work to put the past behind us so that we can experience time as linear and progressing forward. The loopy logic of Arbery’s world proposes that “real life” orientation toward both time and the past to be a necessary fiction.
Here’s where I’d like to write a paragraph that gives you some sense of what I think Plano is “about.” I’m hesitant to do so, because, as the kids say, “your mileage may vary.” But let’s try this: if Plano were a bottle of wine, I might describe it as having undertones of concern about toxic masculinity and abusive relationships, with strong hints of childhood trauma and perhaps sexual abuse; an aroma of the way we tend to replicate our childhood family dynamics in our adult relationships; some dark notes of impostor syndrome and gaslighting; all of which are overtopped by a bright, dry finish of antic, absurd comedy.
None of that would be legible, however, in less capable hands. The play’s pace, as dictated by the playwright, is insanely fast, and under Mansoor’s direction the ensemble of actors masterfully embodies the emotional specificity of each moment, shifting at lightning speed from beat to beat, with full commitment to each turn, no matter how absurd. Together they establish a quasi-cartoonish tone that also, miraculously, cracks open regularly to hold space for moments of heartbreaking poignancy. One memorable example comes toward the end of the play, when the insecure Anne asks their mother Mary to describe one remarkable thing about each sister. Mary manages to only dredge up lame accomplishments from Genevieve and Isabel’s childhoods, which is awkwardly hilarious. But then she is obviously stymied when it comes to Anne, and Velten Smith’s crestfallen reaction gate-crashes the play’s absurdity with the depth and reality of her character’s hidden wounds.
Such is the emotional rollercoaster of Plano: with its breakneck pace and hairpin shifts in direction, it leaves you a bit breathless and dizzy, and maybe even – as the play itself loops back in upon itself in the final moment – ready and eager to strap in for another go at the ride.