Rob Kessler

In the author's notes, local playwright Dustin Engstrom admits he was reading a lot of Neil Gaiman when he wrote The Center of the Universe. The plot—heavy with celestial beings, parallel universes that can only be penetrated with the help of human keys (like in Ghostbusters), and shape-shifting, reality-bending thieves—could easily be mistaken for an early Gaiman concept.

The normal human characters in Universe are more fully sketched than the boring, gothy ciphers who populate Gaiman's work. Michael (Dylan Sladky, alternately incredulous and hopeful) is a young, psychologically wounded gay man. He's best friends with a lesbian named Beth (Jessica Avellone, tough and romantic). They brunch in Fremont and share every queasy detail of their relationship dramas with each other and, inadvertently, an eye-rolling waitress. But when they both get swept up with some players in a cosmic cops-and-robbers routine, the friends chase their objects of desire to England and then across universes.

It's all frightfully complex, like most good fantasy fiction. Open Circle regular Aaron Allshouse, as a bitter universe-hopping misanthrope, brings his long list of genre-theater cred to the show, grounding things with a veteran's ability to render the unbelievable at least understandable. And Drew Sutherland, as the fourth-wall-breaking Bellhop, charms the audience as easily as he seduces Michael at a Cuff-like gay bar in Seattle. At first, Universe excitedly sets up all the genre elements. But after intermission, the show drops the ball, abandoning the energetic nonlinear storytelling of the first half for some frustrating abstraction. Engstrom has worked with OCT on some of its fun Lovecraft adaptations, and so he should know better than to end a sci-fi story with such wishy-washy aimlessness. If you're going to use genre structure, you have to follow through and provide a conclusive ending, or make some sort of clever twist to the expected conclusive ending. Universe doesn't do either of those things. Instead, it ends up lost in space. recommended