Nobody wants to look like a dope. Audiences mulling over the title of Daniel MacIvor’s play may suspect a pretense; what ‘it’ we are supposed to be ‘in on’. Instead of turning confused to your neighbour, checking if they’ve also failed to register a clue, Good Dog Theatre does a good job of spelling out the secret, discerning the different channels of the Canadian playwright’s spectacular meta-theatricality, a sophisticated structure that spins the action into three interweaving narratives.

From the moment the affable Brian Burns (playing the scrupulously-named ‘This One’) enters, picking up a lone dinner jacket left glowing in Susie Cummins’s intelligible lighting, there is a sense of absence in Good Dog’s production. Joined by the deft Owen Martin (‘That One’), the duo claim and exchange a number of roles in the life of a man named Ray: his disloyal wife, his disaffected son, and a doctor stumbling over a killer diagnosis. Under Tracy Martin’s direction, such cynicism is played with the exaggerated gestures of melodrama, with Burns lending flamboyance to the vile spouse, and Martin priming the teenager pompous.

The heights of this reality may be designed to plummet when the play reverts back to the present moment in the theatre, where ‘This One’ and ‘That One’ endeavor to put on their play. The abrupt transition from artifice to life, something unreal to real, feels in tune with the twists of ordinary living, such as not expecting a blue Mercedes to pull into oncoming traffic, or a thunderbolt to the heart. Lovably, when performing their own history, ‘That One’ is paired with a stranger to rehearse a dance routine for a friend’s party. ‘This One’ reveals himself to be the one.

However, for a play varied in styles, the staging is unfortunately singular. Intimacy is played in a playful mode not far from the histrionics of the more exaggerated scenes. The nuances of naturalism could have grounded these moments and conveyed the distance between reality and art. Distinguishing these different dimensions is one matter, but finding the tension between them, where one order succeeds the other, is trickier work. Although admirably, a blurring of lines between theatre and real life is achieved in one respect, with a donation from tickets sales towards Marriage Equality in the run-up to the upcoming Irish referendum on gay marriage.

By the end of MacIvor’s drama, the ‘it’ that we’re really ‘in on’ is a darkness trafficked by the sounds of automated machinery, the high velocity steel that had particular incisiveness when the play premiered a month after 9/11. The un-logic of a universe where death occurs at random often causes us to unravel. MacIvor doesn’t leave us totally in the dark. Tracing back events, we see where opportunities for affection and tact, to love and be loved, could have turned things out differently.

In On It played Smock Alley Theatre. For more information see the Good Dog Theatre website.