CHARLESTOWN — “I’ll go back to the city,” Phil Ochs once sang, “where I can be alone.”
It’s a familiar contradiction — the more people there are surrounding you, the easier it is to become isolated. This forms much of the thematic terrain covered by “Apt. 4D,” a collaboratively devised comedy created by the Beau Jest Moving Theater for its 30th year. Though the show occasionally peers deeply into the lonely corners of a dislocated, urban existence, its deliberately unfocused form makes many a side trip into diversions that weaken its momentum and thematic bite.
The setup is straightforward. Four actors play residents of the same floor of an apartment building, plus assorted auxiliary characters. The earnest, friendly Meg (played by Robin JaVonne Smith) has recently moved in, but her various attempts to engage her new neighbors — like Hunter (Davis Robinson, who also directs), an unsuccessful filmmaker, and the self-possessed professional Avery (Lisa Tucker) — are repeatedly frustrated. Ironically, Meg establishes some kinship by default when she’s drawn into a conspiracy of curiosity about a mysterious newcomer — the young woman in apartment 4D who tools around in a low-cut red dress and sunglasses.
The story is told with almost no sets, props or costume changes, with suitably ominous lighting by Karen Perlow and sound cues that borrow from film soundtracks.
A sense of dislocation and rootlessness hovers over these characters, inside and outside their shared home. When Avery is dismissed from her office job, the news is delivered in such a haze of buzzwords and happy talk about “new opportunities” that she’s forced to ask: “Did I just get fired?” Meg inquires about job openings at a library and is repelled with incomprehensible muttering and the instruction to seek information online instead. When another neighbor (also played by Tucker) seeks signatures for a petition, she mechanically voices an affectless string of social-justice concerns climaxing in an amusing non sequitur about not “put[ting] window envelopes in the recycling.”
In one gorgeously staged scene, the apartment dwellers strain to eavesdrop on their new neighbor. As Hunter, Meg, and Avery squint through peepholes and press their ears against walls to listen in on the woman in 4D, it becomes clear to the audience that the walls and doors these characters view as their protection are in fact obstacles to their deep longing for connection. “We can see them,” one character says during a partial blackout, about the portion of the city that still has power, “but they can’t see us.”
There are multiple conceits at play here. An opening sequence of creative movement seems more like a compilation of theatrical warm-up exercises than artfully crafted choreography, but cues the audience not to take all the action literally. The narrative perspective frequently shifts into the skewed vision of a particular character, without clear delineation. There’s a song here and there (Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof” serves up some on-the-nose foreshadowing), and in a few sequences the dialogue switches into the cadence and slang of vintage film noir. Some subplots hurtle into dead ends.
If there’s a unifying element amid the various claims on narrative authority, it’s the portentous doings and declarations of the pretty woman in the red dress, played by Kathleen Lewis as caricature, for laughs. When not dragging unnamed objects through the hallway or brandishing a gun in the library, the troubled dame cracks off hard-boiled lines like: “I need to find a fall-guy quickly, before the Feds catch the scent.”
The show moves along crisply and in good humor, propelled by a versatile and firmly committed cast under Robinson’s able direction. Though there’s poignancy in the sense of peace the woman in apartment 4D eventually achieves — and the hint of an interesting comment about the power of art to both isolate and bring people together — it comes on the back of an unearned resolution that seeks to trade on an emotional connection the audience never had much of a chance to make.
Judicious editing and thematic unity can be casualties of devised-theater processes that replace the playwright with the creative kismet of open collaboration. It feels like that’s the case with “Apt. 4D.” (A bit about an onerous cat-sitting assignment, for instance, is little more than a skit.) Ultimately, the production knocks on a lot of doors, but leaves many of them unopened.