When you walk into “A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (after David Foster Wallace),’’ green tennis balls are ricocheting around the room, fired one after another out of an automatic launcher.
If anything, the sensation of bombardment is only intensified when the tennis balls are replaced by words, words, and more words, hurtling through the air nonstop for 2½ hours during “Supposedly Fun Thing,’’ which was performed Friday through Sunday as part of ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival.
Sound deadly? It’s not. Quite the opposite, in fact. In constructing this fascinating theater piece from writings by and interviews with David Foster Wallace (“Infinite Jest’’), director Daniel Fish has done a very difficult thing very well: He has captured not just the voice and personality of Wallace, who committed suicide five years ago at age 46, but also the workings of his electric mind and the whirl of his conflicted consciousness. (Not to mention his fondness for tennis.)
This has a distinct downside, of course. There are times when watching “Supposedly Fun Thing’’ feels like being trapped inside someone else’s anxiety attack, or listening to an improvisatory saxophone solo that just . . . won’t . . . end.
More often, though, you’re carried along by the rush of ideas and images and by the portrait Fish and his five-member ensemble create of a man who is absorbing, describing, and interpreting a world that came at him in fast-flying fragments.
The performers (Therese Plaehn, Jenny Seastone Stern, Mary Rasmussen, John Amir, and Efthalia Papacosta) wear headsets through which Fish, seated at a mixing console, transmits excerpts from interviews with Wallace and audiobooks of his nonfiction. They then recite the words.
Sometimes the passages overlap; sometimes the actors speak in unison. Sometimes they sit or kneel; sometimes they move restlessly about. Sometimes they address one another, sometimes the audience. This complicated process feels like a rough theatrical equivalent to Wallace’s fragmented, nonlinear narratives, and it’s especially effective when they deliver excerpts from his essay about the alienation he felt while experiencing the aftermath of 9/11 in Bloomington, Ill., among residents whose innocence he found touching but maddening. “Nobody’s hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious post-modern complaint: We’ve Seen This Before,’’ says one of the actors, channeling Wallace. “Instead, what they do is all sit together and feel really bad, and pray. . . . It’s good, this is good to pray this way. It’s just a little lonely to have to. Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around.’’
So can big-name TV interviewers, to judge by the quizzical, faintly pained expressions on the faces of the ensemble as they reenact Charlie Rose’s 1997 interview with Wallace, during which the author seemed to be toying with his host.
Responding to a question from Rose about the swift celebrity that enveloped him when “Infinite Jest’’ was published the year before, Wallace displays a bracing skepticism about modern fame, American variety: “But the fact of the matter is this is a long, difficult book and a lot of the attention began coming at a time when I — I mean, I can do elementary arithmetic. A lot of people hadn’t had time to read the book yet.’’ Speaking about an artist who intrigued him, the film director David Lynch, Wallace is expansive and insightful, defining “Lynchian’’ as the “unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal’’ and asserting that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was “borderline Lynchian’’ because his refrigerator had “actual food products next to the disembodied bits of the corpse.’’
The sequence ends on a haunting note. Wallace tells Rose that because his writing success did not make him happy, he has developed an interest in older people who made it through a midlife crisis: “They tend to get weird because the normal incentives for getting out of bed don’t tend to apply anymore. I have not found any satisfactory new ones, but I’m also not getting ready to, you know, jump off a building or anything.’’
Still, our knowledge of Wallace’s suicide does not define our experience of “Supposedly Fun Thing.’’
We’re reminded how funny he could be when the ensemble performs excerpts from his account of a trip aboard a luxury cruise ship, and when they enact the author’s blistering review of a memoir by the tennis player Tracy Austin: The four women in the cast pull their hair into pigtails, then step forward to utter insipid quotes from Austin. Her “robotic banality’’ leads Wallace to a meditation on the puzzling fact that so many athletes with compelling life stories are wholly incapable of telling them, or, indeed, of saying anything remotely interesting at all.
The most forceful and vivid member of the ensemble is Plaehn, recently seen pondering quieter existential dilemmas as Emily in David Cromer’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company.
In one remarkable sequence, Plaehn does jumping jacks while delivering an extended Wallace soliloquy about, among other things, a men’s room attendant in a posh hotel, who is described in words that seem also to fit the author himself: “Being there and yet not there. A willed translucence. Provisionally there, contingently there.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.