Like some form self-replicating computerized art, the opening scene of Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at A.C.T. involves the slow tracing of projected lights as acupuncture meridians on the body of a Quebecois voice-over actor named Robert (Olivier Normand). At first, that body is incorporeal, a nonentity in the dark, and it’s a physical manifestation of the anguish that suffuses the play. Are we looking at pain traveling through the nervous system? Or is it perhaps the chemical path of a numbing opioid?
On the one hand, Needles is a fairly simple work. An actor travels to France in the late 1980s to narrate a documentary about Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) at the 1949 Paris jazz festival, nursing his broken heart in Davis’ music and in the work of the poet Jean Cocteau (also played by Normand). It cuts back-and-forth among Robert, Cocteau, and Davis, all of them suffering from existential anomie to some extent.
That’s simple enough, but this also is an exploration of pain and the ways in which good art can keep you away from dangerously seductive analgesics. Needles and Opium is a wonder, operating by bittersweet suggestion. Davis, incidentally, has no dialogue. His (mimed) trumpet playing helps to anchor the play emotionally, but it’s not the kind of anchor that rests motionless on the seabed, letting everything else bob at the surface. Rather, Needles‘ stage direction and lighting cues spill out in every direction, guiding every movement and transition and stopping just short of sci-fi wizardry — as every scene takes place within or just outside a hollow cube that’s the size of a cramped hotel room and which rotates on its axis.
In short, this vertiginous, chiaroscuro-inflected play is a technical marvel, vaguely reminiscent of the video for Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” (minus the big, ugly hat and late-’90s cheesiness factor, that is). Strictly speaking, a Murphy bed with accompanying bedside table, a chair, a door, and a window are all we get. But when it’s not aping the room where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre lived while the latter wrote Nausea, the cube’s interior can become the cosmos, the New York skyline, or Through these visual projections and cables that permit the actors to move from floor to wall — as that wall then becomes the floor — the creative team’s efforts stay smooth and comprehensible, never letting the imagery overtake or engulf the emotional valence.
The play is full of misunderstandings, like a humorous scene involving an attempt to place a long-distance phone call to a request for hotel staff to intervene when guests in an adjacent room are having loud sex to a voiceover session in which Robert is asked (by two directors, one speaking French and the other English) to deliberately mispronounce the name of the singer Juliette Gréco. And the use of hypnosis as a cure for heartbreak feels like a theatrical Freudian offshoot, the black-and-white spiral an obvious metaphor for a downward spiral in the form of heroin addiction. Freud’s obsession with dreams infuses the last lines, too.
At 95 minutes without intermission, this high-wire act well-structured — even if it’s by no means a flawless script. As nearly every scene involves a solitary actor, monologues can drift into speechifying. Cocteau’s overheated paeans to New York City’s vitality can come off as a little gosh-wow, and owing to Normand’s accent, the rapid-fire poetry can be occasionally tough to keep up with. (In his defense, he’s only performed the play in English a handful of times.)
Consequently, Needles‘ quieter sections are the most touching. A scene outside the “Entree des Artistes” at a Paris jazz club where Davis plays his horn as Gréco, his lover, performs inside is almost the perfect distillation of noirish loneliness. Another in which Davis, in dress clothes and suspenders, slides toward her in the bathtub, wrings the most tension out of the set’s 45-degree angles. (He could very easily fall on her in a state of maximum vulnerability.)
Having been re-staged a quarter-century after its 1991 premiere, Lepage’s play benefits from technological advances more than anything else. But its intrinsic merits are many. (The dozen or so black-shirted crew members who take a bow at the curtain call attest to this.) Existential misery, usually associated with interminable, smoke-shrouded arguments in late-night cafes, comes off in Needles and Opium like listening to your favorite jazz album on repeat-all until you feel better.
Needles and Opium, through April 23, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., $20-$105, 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org.