Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Plays From the Alley—Week Three

Posted By on Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 4:34 PM

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A college course I took was given the assignment of writing a short play that couldn't be staged. As a result, the plays that were turned in included one with a horse wielding a shotgun, an on-stage tidal wave, a scene that took place over the course of a marathon and a play set in Einstein's mind; an alternate dimension of pure math lacking physical form.

The third play in Alley Rep's Plays From the Alley new works series, Isaac I Am, by Mary Steelsmith, seems to come very much from the same philosophy of pushing the boundaries of what can or cannot be staged. Approximately 95 percent of Steelsmith's play is set inside Internet chat rooms. And while much of what happens there is engaging, not much happens there physically, somewhat neutering the primary strength of live theater: putting the audience in a physical space with action taking place.

This play depends entirely on the production. Patrick Marber's Closer, made an engaging scene of a chat room. As did Miranda July's film, Me You and Everyone We Know. Same goes for Bradley Denton's novel Laughin' Boy. And with Issac I Am, there is the possibility of a really gripping high-concept production that brings the subtleties of the script and the meta elements of online culture to life. But it's just as possible the attempt would lead to comic melodrama. Especially as the real challenge comes not in the concept but in sustaining it for the whole play, as unlike Closer or the others, it's not a scene or an aside set in such a challenging environment for a company and an audience, it's the whole play.

After the reading, Steelsmith said that when writing she doesn't "see a play in her head as much as hear it," a comment which explains a lot.

This is not to say that the production challenges are the only issues with the script. The story follows a middle-aged woman, Angela, who forms an online friendship with Josh, a teenage boy. When Josh dies of leukemia, his father, Isaac, logs on to Josh's IM account to try to connect with his friends, striking up something of a romance with Angela. And while Angela is trying to help Isaac through his grief, she is also venturing beyond the bounds of her computer with Ben, a man she knows through work. This is a potentially fascinating scenario. But it doesn't work as there's no apparent reason Angela is so adamant about refusing to meet Ben in real life. Or why she flip-flops so easily and pushes so hard to meet Isaac. Or why she insists she loves him one second and is sure he's raping his daughter the next. And if any of these things happen, if none of these things happen, there isn't any real tangible fallout. Because it's all virtual, nothing is really on the line for the characters or situation and therefore, it's hard to care. When the play wraps up with a lame thriller twist about everything being a gigantic head-game, it's even harder to care because it doesn't really matter. Nothing is lost. Nothing is changed. In fact, it's almost to be expected. Mostly the twist seems juvenile when contrasted to otherwise serious nature of the play.

Overall, there were some extremely witty moments and a character dynamic with the potential to be fascinating, but Isaac I Am might be just a play that is better to read than it is to see read out loud.

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