I feel guilty that I haven’t been reviewing any theater during the pandemic. Of course, there is no live theater to review during the pandemic. But a number of theater companies have been streaming recorded versions of earlier productions, and some have been offering up new works — many pegged to our current, hunkered-down, Zoom-infested moment. I’ve forced myself to watch a few of them.
I say forced because, I confess, I have a visceral aversion to watching live theater on film or TV. The excitement of a live performance simply can’t be duplicated, and even good stage productions seem drained of their three-dimensional life when flattened out on the large or small screen. I gave it another try last week, streaming the National Theatre of London’s 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, and got that same old feeling. Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play — about the wife of a London judge who attempts suicide after leaving her husband for another man — is one of those well-made, mid-century British dramas that have gone out of fashion, but that I often enjoy rediscovering. But not this time — or at least not under these circumstances. Those wide views of a cavernous stage populated by tiny figures (interspersed with more intimate shots); the high-pitched acting, aimed at the folks in the balcony, not viewers sitting at home a few feet away; even the bursts of laughter from the theater audience (at lines that barely deserve a titter) — it all made an old-fashioned play seem even more old-fashioned.
On the more contemporary front, a few days earlier I caught up with And So We Come Forth, Richard Nelson’s latest installment of his Apple family chronicle — his cycle of plays re-creating the family dinners of a Rhinebeck, New York, clan on the occasion of various national events (the 2012 President election; the 10th anniversary of 9/11). Now, locked down by the pandemic, they’re sharing the meal, naturally, from their various homes and apartments over Zoom. Onstage, Nelson’s hyper-naturalistic dialogue and real-time immediacy (each play premiered on the very evening of the event in question) was original and bracing. Here, the mixture of family prattle, political gab, and soulful musings (“I haven’t touched another human being in over three months”) seems awfully familiar, even banal. Is this writing or doodling?
The Line, a new documentary play being streamed by New York’s Public Theater, at least has more dramatic juice. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (based, like their other docu-plays such as The Exonerated, on real-life interviews), the hourlong work is a series of interwoven Zoom monologues by seven front-line New York City health-care workers, describing their experiences dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Their accounts are vivid and often harrowing; the actors (including such New York theater stalwarts as Santino Fontana, Jamey Sheridan, and Alison Pill) first-rate; and the creators have done a good job of selection and organization. My problem, again, is the sheer familiarity of the material—which isn’t much different (if more artfully assembled) than the accounts we’ve been hearing for months on CNN and MSNBC.
I don’t mean to be dismissive; these are worthy efforts to keep theater alive and relevant during an existential crisis. But from a viewer’s standpoint, I think we need more distance.