Biographical and geographical details are vaguely, if at all, imparted during this saga of three generations of men all named Charles. We’re in an abstract, narrative landscape. There are glimpses of familiar, everyday American life, possibly in the Northwest, that move from the past, the present and to way in the future.
Playwright Carl Holder’s vision is bold, and his grasp of technique is commanding. That Mr. Holder is cryptic for much of this play emits confidence, but experiencing it is often bewildering, though always engaging.
The structure is a multitude of brief scenes totaling 80 minutes that are punctuated by striking blackouts. Lighting designer Sarah Johnston meticulously provides a crisp blend of striking brightness, eerie darkness and ominous, red hues for appropriate sequences.
Spacy, modern music is frequently heard, and that is finely transmitted by Emily Auciello’s sound design. The unison of Ms. Auciello and Ms. Johnson’s efforts atmospherically achieves the dimension of the passage of time.
The long rectangular stage with its brick wall is minimally set by scenic designer Peiyi Wong with wooden furniture, a small movable platform, a small area off to the side that’s a bathroom, and there’s a steering wheel that’s used to indicate the characters driving.
The rugged, middle-aged Charles is a furniture maker who is descended from a lumber family, and is in his workroom building a cabinet. He is soon joined by his infant son, Charles 2. We see Charles 2 grow up into an adult, and then we meet his infant son, Charles 3. Charles 3 grows to adulthood. There is never any mention of the children’s mothers.
The dialogue is sparse as various mundane activities are depicted, such as learning to drive, shaving and ordering food from a deli. The infants are played by adult actors. The cast wears matching wigs. Andrea Hood’s authentically simple costume design is comprised of jeans, shorts, trousers, plaid shirts, and T-shirts. The production all has a Thornton Wilder-style quality.
The play takes a jarring turn when as a young adult, Charles 3 is revealed to be gay. This leads to a powerful, shadowy enactment of online hooking up.
The small-town deli that serves sandwiches has been tangential to the plot, but becomes a major focal point. There, the arguably primary theme of the play brilliantly emerges, the profound obliteration of existence by time.
Three talented and skilled actors vibrantly appear in the production, and faithfully fulfill the author’s intentions with their mesmerizing performances.
The personable Richard Toth as Charles masterfully conveys the essence of an American everyman with his folksy but hard-edged representation. Mr. Toth also displays tremendous versatility when portraying several other characters that are all precisely defined and likeable.
Mike Shapiro winningly hurls himself into realistically replicating a baby, a child, an adolescent and an adult as Charles 2. Mr. Shapiro is totally at ease during this multi-faceted characterization that’s filled with humor and pathos.
Wide-eyed, serene but animated, and youthful, Fernando Gonzalez is marvelously effective as Charles 3. Mr. Gonzalez is equally adept at conveying the stages of life. Gonzalez unflinchingly embraces the role’s darker aspects as he gradually becomes the main focus.
Director Meghan Finn’s staging is a supreme melding of all of the technical elements with the expressive work of the actors. There are numerous arresting tableaus, vivid imagery and a propulsive pace. Ms. Finn has exquisitely rendered Holder’s work.
At the conclusion of Charleses, there is the exhilarating and melancholy feeling of having shared several people’s life journeys and the inevitable end that comes to all.
Charleses (through April 29, 2017)
The Tank’s Save & Print Series
The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Avenue, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.thetanknyc.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission