It isn't often enough that ACT plays host to a work of such jaw-dropping visual innovation as Needles and Opium, and so I come around to my thoughts on the piece as a whole with some frustration over the fact that I don't have as many wonderful things to say about the text itself. Ex Machina, the theater collective founded by writer-director Robert Lepage, has created for this play an arresting, dynamic set which, combined with Lepage's direction and wire-suspended acrobatics, calls to mind the magic of Cirque du Soleil — for whom the Quebec-based Lepage has actually directed two shows. But when the set and the movement are such starring characters, one hopes at least that the main character can hold his own beside them, and that isn't the case here.

Taking as inspiration a coincidence involving a hotel room he liked to stay in at the Hotel La Louisiane in Paris, Lepage devised the script for Needles and Opium back in 1991, which centers on a character named Robert (played here by Olivier Normand) who is doing some voiceover work in Paris following a painful breakup. The play, which operates essentially as a one-man show in monologue and through one-sided phone conversations, was originally written in French and performed in Canada when Lepage served as artistic director of the National Arts Centre's Théâtre français in Ottawa. Presented alongside Robert's story — which consists of him mostly alone, working through the feelings of intense heartbreak, and one scene in which he's doing voice-over narration for a documentary about the singer Juliette Greco, who once had an affair with Miles Davis — are silent scenes involving Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III), both in Paris in 1949 and in New York descending into heroin addiction shortly thereafter, and monologues by French poet and surrealist filmmaker Jean Cocteau (also played by Normand).

The juxtaposition is no accident, and is a personal one for Lepage: That hotel room he liked in Paris turned out to the same one in which Davis and Greco had their affair in 1949, and Greco was, shortly thereafter, in a film by Cocteau, Orphée, in which a photograph of her that she had taken for Davis was kept on set.

But Lepage fails to convey the importance of this coincidence, or any real parallels between his own story and Miles Davis's except that they each experienced heartbreak — and it doesn't help that Miles is forced to be just a silent figure whom we see assembling a trumpet, playing a trumpet, pawning his trumpet, and shooting up heroin, without ever discussing the specifics of his own anguish over Greco.

Also, curiously, because the lover at the other end of the telephone line is never identified by name or gender, Lepage's breakup depicted in the play was pretty obviously with a gay lover. The avoidance of saying this plainly feels very much an anachronism from the year this play was written, and probably should just have been revised rather than leave it so awkwardly unsaid.

As for what Cocteau's thoughts on the world, and on Americans' behavior, have to do with anything, the character seems mostly there to add some intellectual caché, because he doesn't seem to comment directly on heartbreak, or addiction, which are the play's main themes — even though the Robert character does not descend into addiction himself, but does try hypnosis to get over his breakup, and one gets the sense that his pain is meant to be equivalent to Davis's.

What is undeniable, though, is how effective the set is in conveying the feeling of complete discombobulation, and in visually portraying the gravity-free sensation of a heroin high. Almost all of the action takes place within a suspended, spinning, three-sided white cube, which doubles as a projection screen, and we see both Robert trapped in it, in his hotel room, and Miles flop around it as it spins a full 360 degrees, finally landing half on, half off a bed in a stupor. The box contains compartments and doors, too, and the characters magically float through them, sometimes on wires — a nod, perhaps, to Cocteau's own esthetics, and the reversals of gravity he employed in his early film Blood of a Poet.

I left the play with more questions than answers, with perhaps the biggest one being why so many desultory, one-sided phone conversations were included in a script that is only 90 minutes long with no intermission. Or why Lepage cast a French-speaking actor whose accent, in English, causes him to stumble over so many lines. But if you're a sucker for visual stunts — and typically I am — you can't help but walk away impressed with the stagecraft of Needles and Opium, though, especially seeing the 10 crew members who make that set spin and function, who all come out to share the curtain call with the lone two performers. Is it asking to much to have all that creativity in the service of a worthy story?

Needles and Opium plays through April 23 at ACT's Geary Theater. Find tickets here.