Monday, January 31, 2011

THEATER: Better Left Unsaid

Photo/JP Yim
Perhaps younger demographics and changes in our future will turn this unsavory combination of social media and live theater into the next pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, but right now, Better Left Unsaid, the "first of its kind, interactive, live-streamed play" belongs firmly entrenched in the "But why would you want to" column. Yes, you can buy a ticket to watch high-quality video, mixed from the theater's four cameras, in real time . . . but why would you want to? This is no spectacle, no must-see play, no real experience. And yes, you can comment on the proceedings -- a sort of passive interactivity -- and theoretically "chat" with the audience during intermission . . . but why would you want to? It's not as if this straightforward, jam-packed soap opera demands any real thinking from its viewers; if it did, you'd be too engrossed to type. (And, if the two hyped-up, empty comments from the night I attended are any evidence, that wouldn't be much of a loss. Some things, and I say this with exactly as much irony as is intended, are better left unsaid.)

Writer/director Joey Brenneman's "innovation" (or, more appropriately, "appropriation") is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse when it ought to be focused on getting back to basics like "plot" and "development." Instead, she throws everything at the wall, crafting bland, short, five-to-ten minute long scenes that advance the plot, leaving her cameras to do all the framing and contextualizing. In Central Park, William (Dathan B. Williams) catches up with Maggie (Jennifer Dorr White), with whom he once had a one-night stand; simultaneously, Carla (Jessica Arinella) helps her sister Luisa (Kathryn Velvel Jones) care for her baby, and then runs into Scott (Miguel Govea), an old boyfriend she once semi-stalked. This isn't coincidental enough: Scott's friend, Lennie (Monique Lola Berkley), turns out to be Maggie's daughter (you can guess who the father must be); because Lennie's a nurse, she's there when Luisa's husband, Nick (Craig Waletzko), gets into a car crash with his mistress, Sandra, and tries to get his friend, DJ (Marcus Ho) to help him cover.

Characters don't behave in any consistent sort of way; rather, they exist to help tie these strands together. Lennie announces that she wants to adopt, which causes her mother (who raised her on her own) to freak out and trot in William. She then tells Scott that she's going to adopt Sandra's unwanted baby, which leaks out to Carla, who -- for no discernible reason -- decides that she has to tell Luisa, considering that the kid is her brother-in-law's bastard. In neither of these cases do we explore why Lennie, who works constant triple-shifts, wants to be a mother, nor why Carla, who has kept the secret about Nick's affair and Luisa's own crush on DJ (yes, there's that, too), feels it necessary to spread this particular secret around. Of all the things better left unsaid, "why" is not one of them; of all the things actually said, Scott's confession that "This is a Lifetime movie" comes closest to the truth. (It's more like four Lifetime movies hugging it out.)

There is firm ground in the play: scenes between the squabbling Luisa and Nick actually have rising and falling action, and, unsurprisingly, showcase the strongest actors. That's because they've got something to fight for -- a marriage -- as opposed to characters like DJ and Maggie, who just sort of pop up to present temptations, obstacles, and plot points. The same goes for Brenneman's technical innovation, which just sort of pops up (literally) to present Better Left Unsaid a means of marketing itself. Yes, you can market this show . . . but why would you want to?

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