We’re lucky in Louisville to have Actor’s Theatre, one of the most respected regional stages in the country. As a venue for original theatrical productions, way down here in the Southern end of the Midwest (or way up here on the Northern end of the Southeast, whichever) Actor’s Theatre actually matters to the people of Louisville, in ways that the typical coastal elitist would not understand (but the elite among the elite, those few who are in the know about American theater, and Actor’s Theatre’s central place within in it, would — so blah to you).
Among ATL’s many worthwhile programs is the annual Festival of New American Plays, sponsored by the local insurance behemoth Humana. Joe and I try to go to as many of these as we can every year. You get a mixed bag, as you might expect from a showcase for original, “cutting edge” theatre. Most of the plays we see at the Festival in any given year, we actually hate. But the experience as a whole — the flaming pu-pu platter of contemporary drama, served up conveniently and inexpensively right here at home — we love, in every particular. Hating a lot of the plays is part of the fun.
“Hate” may be a strong word.
I wasn’t overly fond of “The Veri**on Play,” for example, which we saw in preview last night.
It had its bright spots. An extended sequence representing the cast traveling around the world was staged in a clever way. The early scene depicting a party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn nailed the stereotypes (at least, it reminded me very much of a party I once attended in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, which is not yet Williamsburg, but might be in a few years). Its central conceit — that Verizon, the telecommunications giant, is deliberately trying to drive its customers insane by offering piss-poor customer service — rang true to this guy, who gave up trying to convince them that he didn’t owe them $45 a few years back, but who never paid the bill out of principle, and took the hit on his credit report. I hate Verizon as much as anybody in the world. And there are a lot of us. All of that could have come together nicely, but failed to do so.
Early on, after the protagonist (played by playwright Lisa Kron) had told her tale of Customer Service woe, she cracked a joke that once anybody tells a story like that, everybody else wants to tell their own Customer Service stories, and it’s boring to have to hear them whine about the precise details of their interactions with faceless drones on the other side of the line.
Well. Yeah. Kinda. You think?
That’s how I felt about the first half of this play.
I woke up in the second half, when the around-the-world sequence occurred. It was fun! But it was also pointless. It seemed to be shoehorned in there just for the sake of the staging ideas that made it so enjoyable.
The ending, though, was what broke the play completely. It tried to be two things the play hadn’t been up until that point at all:
a). an audience-participation political manifesto, and
b). a musical.
Both of which are way too heavy and too perplexing to sit there on the tail end of a play, without being counterbalanced and foreshadowed, structurally or otherwise, by the rest of the experience, at least to my post-Brooklyn, thoroughly midwestern taste.
On the politics: I appreciate that mobile carrier indifference is a problem we can all relate to. I appreciate the attempt to connect the dots from there to the bigger issues (the early 90s Telecom Act in particular), but the attempt comes too little, too late, and isn’t fully fleshed out enough to matter. You can’t spark a Revolution by complaining about bad customer service, any more than you can save the environment by shopping.
As for the singing: what the what? It came out of nowhere, and though well-done, didn’t make me think anything other than, “What a waste of such great, talented actor/singers, to cast them for their singing ability, then only let them sing this one time at the very, very end.”
But again, that’s part of the Festival promise: people doing things on stage you didn’t necessarily expect. Sometimes, the attempt falls flat. But it was a worthwhile attempt, and a not-painful couple of hours. If I hadn’t been watching this, I’d have been watching the Oscars — so at least it sort of saved me from that (I have the Oscars DVRd though, so I’ll probably still watch them, damn my homosexual soul). It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. If another Lisa Kron play comes to town sometime, I’ll probably go watch it, maybe. But it also wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever seen, or even in the top 1000.
So: Actor’s Theatre yay! Festival of New American Plays yay! “The Veri**on Play” meh!