Leah Smith as Chloe and John Busser as Rob. PHOTO | Cory Molner

convergence-continuum’s ‘Selfies at the Clown Motel’ an intriguing but two-dimensional portrait

By Bob Abelman

Evocative but empty.

This describes the abandoned pair of oversized, fire engine, red clown shoes laying in the middle of the convergence-continuum performance space, as well as the world premiere production of local playwright Christopher Johnston’s “Selfies at the Clown Motel” taking place around them.

Disheartened, despondent, middle-aged Rob (John Busser) has left his unfulfilling marriage and unsatisfactory job to move in with a young circus clown named Chloe (Leah Smith), who walks the high wire without a net and owns the shoes. Their place of temporary residence — and the play’s only locale — is an unairconditioned room at a sleazy, clown-themed motel in the Nevada desert, which is managed by the unstable Agnes (Lauri Hammer) and her socially-awkward man-child son Skar (Jack Matuszewski).

The play begins where the story ends — with Rob’s death while making love to Chloe — and steadily regresses to the moment when Rob is about to meet up with Chloe in the Clown Motel’s empty parking lot, which is where the story begins and the play ends.

Imagine Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” as staged by Sam Shepard and performed in rainbow wigs.

Not much happens in the 18 short scenes that take place between those two plot points, save for some piecemeal illumination of Rob and Chloe’s backstories and a series of random, on-stage selfies that are projected onto a billboard located in the motel parking lot.

Minor set changes are performed by a menacing, fiendishly masked clown cleaning crew (Hammer, Matuszewski and Gideon-Patrick Lorete), who are guaranteed to freak out anyone with the slightest leanings toward coulrophobia.

There’s also an ill-timed intermission that does not appear in the original script and unnecessarily disrupts the storytelling.

Most of the play’s acerbic dialogue serves to define its characters and set the disturbing tone for the play, but it does not propel the backward-thinking storyline forward with any sense of purpose or urgency.

Every now and again, however, characters stop to reflect on an important or particularly troubling moment in their respective lives. When these moments occur, Johnson’s prose reads like lilting poetry, the acting is absolutely hypnotic, and Clyde Simon’s direction — complete with Beau Reinker’s thematic soundtracks, Tom Kondilas’ projections and Cory Molner’s dramatic lighting — hits on all cylinders.

Chloe dreamily narrates a recurring, haunting tightrope walking nightmare, which Smith enacts with remarkable physical and emotional dexterity.

The predatory Skar — which Matuszewski serves up as a fully formed freak show, complete with stalker eyes, a disturbingly halting cadence, and no sense of personal space — sadistically unveils the details of his bizarre relationship with Chloe.

Rob romantically recounts a lonely late-night road trip through the moonlit Mojave Desert, which Busser beautifully embellishes.

But these monologues are too few to offset the more monotonous moments in the production, which are often delivered by Hammer’s comparatively undeveloped and underplayed Agnes.

And had Simon turned the cleaning crew’s pedestrian set-changing buffoonery into more menacing and masterful clowning, the creepy payoff — the one that taps what many people fear more than cyber-terrorism, bio-warfare and public speaking — would have paid dividends.

One of them would have been making the abandoned red clown shoes spied at the top of the production seem a little less empty upon its conclusion. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Selfies at the Clown Motel”

WHERE: convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland

WHEN: Through Sept. 17

TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $15. Visit convergence-continuum.org or call 216-687-0074.

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

 Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 9, 2016.

LEAD PHOTO: Leah Smith as Chloe and John Busser as Rob. PHOTO | Cory Molner