Theater Review: Buntport Thinks Outside the Box with Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes

A clothesline on which tops and bras are hung spans the stage. Other than that, the set consists of four shrouded forms that are eventually unshrouded to reveal four middle-aged people sitting in boxes — if you consider Buntport Theater Company’s Brian Colonna, Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan and Erik Edborg middle-aged. But as Rollman points out, middle age is a shifting boundary, hard to define, and this is territory explored in the latest Buntport creation, Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes.

The characters can hear and speak to each other, but they can’t touch each other through the plexiglass barriers of their boxes; they can also stand up and walk these boxes from place to place, creating interesting geometrical configurations. In the box on the right, Colonna struggles with that ubiquitous modern horror: trying to get something done by phone. He can’t access the site he needs online, because it no longer recognizes him. But when, after a long wait, he actually gets a human being named Angela on the phone, she can’t help him, either — because the system says he doesn’t exist. All of this is particularly hard to cope with because he’s tethered to a landline by a long, curly cord and is wearing no pants. Periodically, the others exhort him to please put them on, but he explains that he can’t until he finds his socks — because first socks and then pants is his rule for dressing.

In her box, Duggan occupies herself with her job, which involves classifying data. On the other side of her, Rollman organizes a 25-year high-school reunion on Facebook. And then there’s Edborg, who seems to have moved into a new place and is trying to organize his belongings. This is hard because he’s a hoarder and has also mislabeled his stuff: The box that says “cutlery,” for instance, contains an embroidered pillow. And another box that arrives in the mail labeled “spice rack” turns out to be something else entirely.

What is Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes about? There are a lot of lists and a lot of attempts on the characters’ part to categorize. This passion for order takes an array of forms, from enumerating all the buildings and businesses in a particular neighborhood to Edborg’s musings about how to use a spice rack when he can name only three spices to how you’re defined by those quizzes that ask what historical personage you’d be or reveal how your favorite fruit exposes your personality.

“You’re trying to control the chaos,” Duggan tells Edborg kindly. “That’s what middle-aged people do.”

The idea of order is all mixed up with the idea of data — how we acquire it as well as how we sort it — and that leads to talk about generations: X-ers and Y-ers and Networlders, all of whom view the world in different ways because of the different ways in which the world comes to them. There are references to the usual targets: people’s obsession with their gadgets, the proliferation of emoticons and selfies, the way one generation fails to understand another’s way of using technology — though the cast also points out that dividing human beings into generations with arbitrary cut-off points is deceptive in itself. But the dialogue isn’t obvious: The Buntport crew goes deeper, showing that there’s something profoundly mysterious about the way our brains work, and raising a slew of questions about the ubiquity of facts and the ease with which we can look them up: Does this make people dumber because they no longer know how to research, or smarter because they don’t have to waste time unearthing facts and can use the easily acquired information to deepen understanding?

Since this is a Buntport production, everything is hilariously askew, and the show is both filled with absurdities and dizzyingly clever. The performances are spot-on and the timing impeccable. Middle Aged People does communicate a sense of loss: These people are boxed in, after all, time is inexorably passing, and we’ll never know what’s happened to poor Angela or even if she really exists. Still, there’s a willingness to embrace the unknowable — and even magic in the shape of a little one-horned fairground goat passed off as a unicorn. It may have been just a sad, sickly animal, but there’s something about the idea of a unicorn and our willingness to accept it that transcends lists and data and frees the imagination — just as this play does.

Middle Aged People Sitting in Boxes, presented by Buntport Theater Company through May 2, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388,