In the third act of Imago Theatre's Human Noise, a motel manager named Holly (Emily Elizabeth Welch) recalls a farmhouse she used to visit. It's one of her most precious memories, because the couple that lived there embodied Holly's hopes of growing old with her husband, Duane (Bryan Smith). That dream now seems impossible. Duane has cheated on Holly in the motel where she works, and now she's contemplating leaping through a window.
So it goes in Human Noise, which adapts for the stage three short stories and a poem by the late Oregon writer Raymond Carver. Though it doesn't undermine the power of the beautifully minimalist scenic design or the actors' skillful ability to channel the grief, fear and lust in the stories, Human Noise adheres to Carver's work perhaps too loyally.
At least that isn't true of "Neighbors," an uproarious tale of middle-aged sexual awakening. It stars Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle as Bill and Arlene, a couple tasked with feeding their neighbors' cat. The routine favor rapidly mutates into a kinky odyssey of self-discovery. Unbeknownst to each other, the repressed Bill and Arlene both use their neighbors' apartment as a personal sanctuary of masturbation, unleashing some funny-sad mayhem that puts a comedic spin on the show's obsession with doomed, turbulent love stories.
Like the other three stories in Human Noise, "Neighbors" vocalizes Carver's text mostly word-for-word. The characters refer to themselves with lines like, "She shakes her head."
But Human Noise isn't a glorified audiobook. The actors are remarkably comfortable with the unconventional dialogue, as well as Mouawad's unusual set, which features two skeletal door frames that mirror the play's bleak emotional landscape.
If only the stories themselves possessed that kind of inventiveness. Once Human Noise plunges into Carver's "A Serious Talk" and "Gazebo," it devolves into a rote battle of the sexes. Men are portrayed as treacherous, sex-crazed animals and women as hysterical homemakers who meekly cower in the face of confrontation. The dispiriting view of gender looks frustratingly narrow compared to Mouawad's bold creative flourishes, like filling the play with music by Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.
Yet there are moments when Human Noise transcends Carver's stereotypes, including when Holly recalls that farmhouse. Staring out into the audience, Welch speaks of Holly's dashed dreams with such passion and eloquence that you feel as if you're not watching a character, but a friend you desperately want to protect.
Human Noise has enough moments like that to draw you into the play's world, even if it isn't as impactful or complex as it yearns to be.
SEE IT: Human Noise plays at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th St., imagotheatre.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 30. $10-$20 sliding scale Sept. 28-30. $25 Sept. 30, which includes a reading by Carver's partner, Tess Gallagher.