Review of On the Verge
Time-traveling Victorian ladies. Impressive, almost overwhelming wordplay. Strange men at every turn. Such is the world of Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge. Occasionally disoriented but always adventurous, Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra bravely enter into a new time period almost every scene, eggbeaters at the ready. Did any of that make sense? No? That’s a little what reading On the Verge is like. And yet, while exchanges like, “I have always traveled solo hitherto… Occasionally encountering a sister sojourner on a trek-” “Pausing briefly for the pro forma cuppa-” “And then going our separate ways alone” can be bewildering, it’s always intriguing.
The play finds Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra already full immersed in their time-traveling. These are no neophyte traversers; entering a jungle in 1920 and exiting into 1955 doesn’t impress them nearly as much as the new Kodaks and the debate about the acceptability of trousers. In each era they meet a man (all played by the same actor) who exemplifies the an extreme version of someone from that time. Between 1888 and 1950, they meet Alphonse, a German-French-Dutchman, who is not actually Alphonse, but the cannibal who ate Alphonse. Somewhere in between years, they meet a rapping teenage bridge troll. In a dream, Fanny converses with Mr. Coffee, an icon who informs her that her beloved husband Grover, to whom she spends the play writing letters, killed himself after the crash of ’29, but not before having his time-traveling wife declared dead and remarrying. When they finally reach 1955, the final year of the play, the ladies meet Gus and Nicky, a greaser and a casino owner, respectively. It’s these two men that have the biggest effect on the ladies. Gus answers their biggest questions and Nicky changes Alex and Fanny’s lives by helping Alex score a career as a lyricist and winning Fanny’s heart. And Mary, the seemingly most straight-laced of the trio, decides that 1955 is not for her, and moves further into the future on her own.
The synopsis on the back of the book compares Overmyer’s style to Tom Stoppard and Thornton Wilder, which is very accurate. Overmyer combines Stoppard’s clever wordplay and intricate plot with Wilder’s historical monologuing style. Each scene ends with one of the women composing a letter or “writing” in a journal (though no physical writing actually happens), in which they reveal their innermost fears and most candid observations.
The most striking thing about this play is its dialogue and vernacular. I can’t even fathom how Overmyer’s brain works to have written this play. At the beginning of the play, Mary finds a button with a Latin phrase engraved into it, which she pronounces phonetically as “Hec-kwhod-ont.” None of the trio can puzzle out what it might mean until they find an “I Like Ike” button later in their travels and discover that they two button are companions: “I like Ike.” “Heck, who don’t?”
And who couldn’t like this play? It’s silly, it’s confusing, it makes the reader think about life and relationships, what it means to be alone and together, and how seeing new places and meeting new people can change you for good.
FANNY: You won’t see what you’ve Kodaked?
ALEX: Not until we return home.
FANNY: How do you know that it works?
ALEX: You trust. You “click.” You store. You protect. You wait.
“Alexandra, the civilizing mission of Woman is to reduce the amount of masculinity in the world. Not add to it by wearing trousers.”
“I would sooner saunter across the Sahara sans sandals than don trousers. An umbrella comes in handy. In the jungle.”
MARY: Why is there evil in the world, Alexandra?
ALEX: To thicken the plot.
“I dream abut mysterious machinery, discover strange objects in my baggage, and strange phrases in my mouth: ‘Air mail,’ ‘Blue-sky ventures.’ ‘So long.’”