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STAGE REVIEW

Defined by tragedy in ‘Salt Girl’

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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John Kuntz gives an exceptionally brave performance in “The Salt Girl,’’ and not just because he performs one scene in the nude and another in a panda suit.

That may make “The Salt Girl’’ sound merely gimmicky. It’s much more than that. True, this one-man play, written by the actor, has gimmicks aplenty, including a “Hollywood Squares’’-style, floor-to-ceiling backdrop containing nearly two dozen TV sets, on which flicker images that range from humdrum to hallucinatory.

But it is the tormented human being in front of those monitors who commands most of our attention. His last name is Quint (he never tells us his first name), and within moments of his arrival onstage he is in the middle of a suicide attempt. Then the phone rings, first with an obscene call, and then with the news that his father has been in a serious car accident and is in a coma, near death.

In fits and starts, through flashbacks and reenactments, Quint recounts the tale of his sad and troubled family and the impact of a pivotal event. As with “Gone Baby Gone,’’ that event involved the disappearance of a child. In 1970, when his sister was 6 and their mother was pregnant with Quint, the girl vanished.

We never learn her name. She is simply “my sister,’’ an idealized abstraction. His father told him she looked like the umbrella-wielding girl on the Morton’s salt container, fueling the boy’s obsession with the sister he never knew. “I grew up believing that my sister was the salt girl,’’ Quint says. We see Quint as a teenager, tape-recording an “audio diary’’ of his daily life for her. He’ll spend decades wondering what she was like, whether she was still alive, and whether his own life might have turned out better if he had known her.

So, was Quint’s sister abducted? Or could she possibly have been murdered by Quint’s father, a man who specialized in devising intricate execution devices for the state? (“He liked music and art and concocting ways of killing people,’’ Quint says).

We are told that the girl’s disappearance drew nationwide attention; tabloid suspicion even fell on Quint’s mother, prompting a “Saturday Night Live’’ skit about pregnant women on killing sprees. His mother drowned a few years after his sister’s disappearance. An accident or a suicide? “Was my family, for lack of a better word, cursed?’’ muses Quint. Ultimately, the disappearance of his sister meant that Quint never really knew his mother or his father, either.

Yet while there are obvious echoes in this play of the JonBenet Ramsey case and cases of missing children, it’s not realism or social satire Kuntz is after. Instead, somewhat in the style of the Austrian playwright Peter Handke, Kuntz wants to present a study in the step-by-step disintegration of a man’s psyche.

At bottom, “The Salt Girl’’ is a meditation on the power of that big, wounding, and inescapable question: What if?

Kuntz explores that question with arresting originality, although the roughly two-hour “Salt Girl’’ would work better if some second-act fat were trimmed to make the play 10 or 15 minutes shorter. Under the inventive direction of David R. Gammons, Kuntz takes a lot of chances, and he asks a lot of the audience within the small Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, too. If Quint cannot escape the claustrophobic confines of his mind, neither can we. While it’s not an interactive show as such, Kuntz keeps the audience on its toes. Be prepared to dodge some flying celery and Fruity Pebbles cereal, is all I’m saying.

Quint makes occasional attempts to ingratiate himself with the audience with some self-consciously bad puns (“a soupçon of soup cans’’) and black-humored observations that toy with the line between actor and character. “Theater is such a dying form, don’t you think?’’ the suicidal Quint says at one point. “Maybe that’s why I chose it. I sympathize.’’

The mostly black-and-white images on those looming TV screens provide a visual counterpoint to Quint’s tale, evoking the creepy aura of those Dharma Initiative orientation films on “Lost.’’ From the seemingly straightforward (a cowboy striding down a western street) to the surpassingly strange (throbbing cellular organisms) to scenes of happy families or of simple domesticity (a woman demonstrating a new refrigerator), the images underscore - and sometimes mock - Quint’s anguish.

The memorable final image of “The Salt Girl,’’ however, does not involve video. Fittingly, it relies instead on Kuntz’s theatrical imagination.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE SALT GIRL

Play by: John Kuntz

Directed by:

David R. Gammons

At: Boston Playwrights’

Theatre through Nov. 22.

Tickets $30 (discounts available). 866-811-4111,

www.bostonplaywrights.org

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