WATERTOWN — Western civilization already had the three Fates, the three Graces, the three Weird Sisters of “Macbeth,” and, of course, Charlie’s Angels. Now, courtesy of Eric Overmyer’s delightful “On the Verge,” we can add Fanny, Mary, and Alex, three Victorian-era American explorers — “polytopians,” Overmyer calls them — who, as the 1985 comedy opens, find themselves in Terra Incognita, a land “somewhere east of Australia, and west of Peru,” as Alex (short for Alexandra) tells us.
The year is 1888, or thereabouts (there’s some discussion as to whether McKinley, Cleveland, or Taft is president), but it won’t be for long, as space becomes time and the ladies find themselves beating a path into the future, in the course of which journey they’ll meet a German-speaking cannibal, Fanny’s husband, Grover, a yeti, a toll-collecting troll, Mr. Coffee, a good-old-boy gas-station attendant, and Havana-style-nightclub owner and singer Nicky Paradise — all portrayed by the same actor.
The play is a tall order for any theater company, and the production from New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts manages it reasonably well. Cristina Todesco’s set is improbably futuristic for a piece that winds up in 1955: sliding glass panels covered with bubble wrap, dozens of white chairs hanging at the rear, and then, after intermission, dozens of glass globes, some clear, some frosted. The bare stage offers the three actresses just a chair apiece. Screens to the left and right show playful scene titles like “Fort Apache,” “In the Jungle — The Mighty Jungle,” and “Not Quite Robert Lowell.” Overmyer’s musical requirements are observed: “Rock Around the Clock” blasts from a radio, the actresses move stealthily to the theme from “Peter Gunn,” Alex scats to the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” and Nicky sings (or syncs) the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby.” During intermission, you might catch the Elegants’ 1958 hit “Little Star.”
But even though a character that appears in the written play — a fortune-teller named Madame Nhu — is omitted, this production, as directed by Jim Petosa, runs two hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission), and after a while Overmyer’s incessant wordplay starts to pall. The play itself loses a little steam once the ladies land in the 20th century and discover President Eisenhower, Cool Whip, and Burma Shave.
Paula Langton’s philosophizing Mary is the most convincing Victorian: enthusiastic, imperturbable, and finding everything about the future — including her observation that a nautilus shell mimics the shape of the Milky Way — “not annoying. Not annoying at all.” Adrianne Krstansky’s conservative, trousers-abjuring Fanny and Christine Hamel’s Himalaya-loving, rhyming-addicted Alex seem more at home in 1955. A brisker pace might make the humor seem less self-conscious. Which is not to say that Hamel isn’t funny taking selfies with her Kodak box camera or, as an aspiring rock ’n’ roller, belting “Ike get a kick out of you.”
As for Benjamin Evett in the seven male roles, he’s not self-conscious so much as exuberantly outrageous, whether he’s playing over-the-top cannibal Alphonse (who takes on the personalities of the people he eats) or a rapping Gorge Troll (“You may not dig my lingo but I’ll settle your hash / You wanna get by me gotta have some cash”) who’s also a Method actor. What’s more, his Nicky brings out the best in Krstansky, whose Fanny becomes, at the end, endearingly romantic. It’s Evett’s manic energy that keeps this “On the Verge” pointed in the right direction.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.