BWW Review: THE 24 HOUR VIRAL MONOLOGUES Return for a Second Dose of Streaming Theatre
Broadway may be dark and silent right now, but the theatre community isn't. After a successful first run, The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues returned on March 24 with a fresh set of quarantine-inspired short plays and monologues. Since 1995, the 24 Hour Plays project has been matching up writers and performers to create funny, moving, and emotional mini-pieces of theater in, well, 24 hours. The response to the quickly-adapted March 17 edition was so overwhelming that a sequel was immediately born.
Despite the digital requirements, these plays still felt like plays, not TV shows or YouTube videos (except where intended - more on that in a moment). It's a testament to the brilliant adaptability of this community, who not only are able to whip up delightful plays and performances in such a short time span, but who are able to take what's typically an in-person process and make it entirely remote without losing any of the spontaneity. If anything, it feels utterly appropriate for our times. Even before the shutdowns, theatre has been grappling with how to adapt to an increasingly digital world. How do we tell stories that acknowledge technology's presence in our society without seeming trite or dated? How does theatre as an art form exist in a world of streaming and social media?
The 24-Hour Viral Monologues deal with all of that and then some. The pieces, which can all be viewed on the company's website here, pretty much all deal with situations arising from the current pandemic, casting the actors as a wide variety of people in everyday situations and, often, casting the audience as characters in the stories too. It's a unique and clever way to utilize social media to create emotional closeness while keeping that buzzword, "social distancing."
In some cases, the relationship to the current crisis is more tangential or thematic than literal. In "Favorite Episode" by Joseph Dougherty, performed by Juliana Canfield, a woman describes her favorite episode of The Twilight Zone: an episode in which a man chats with an anthropomorphized Death before, well, dying. As we struggle through these unprecedented times, it's an interesting meditation on how we look to other human beings for comfort - even when death itself is knocking, she (and we) finds it oddly comforting to imagine being able to interact with Death as we would interact with a person.
Tired of those faux-inspiring celebrity and influencer videos where they present platitudes from the comfort of their multi-million-dollar homes? Eric Bogosian's "Injustice" is the catharsis you're looking for. Clark Gregg plays a self-important, self-absorbed filmmaker trying to convince his producer (the role the audience plays) that they need to start back up again as soon as possible, because people need this project, whatever it is. The skewering of celebrity culture is pitch-perfect, neither too over-the-top nor too subtle, as it mocks the skewed priorities of the wealthy during times of crisis.
A little absurd humor goes a long way when we need laughs, and this project has it in spades. On the one hand, "Okay Hi Everyone" by Alena Smith is so matter-of-fact in its goofy premise (a bonnet-wearing time traveler, played by Anna Baryshnikov, has an influencer YouTube channel) that you can't help giggling at the incongruity of her begging for collaborations with bonnet-makers "or pharmaceuticals." I feel obliged to mention that there's also a very cute dog, which is precisely what we could all use right now.
On the other hand, there's Danny Pudi's performance in "Making Lemons" by Elizabeth Irwin. The premise appears to be a man who's experimenting with deliberate "regression" - hence the flipped platitude in the title. Watching Pudi's expressive comic performance is delightful, and if we never quite find out why this character is doing what he's doing, it's entertaining and absurd and worth it.
Tracey Scott Wilson's "I Just Wanted to Say," performed by Coral Peña, is another standout, capturing an endearing awkwardness that's all too relatable. Peña's charming rambling feels like something that's happened to all of us, when the mouth runs away with things because the brain is too nervous and on edge. It's funny and just a tiny bit bittersweet, and it's one that you'll want to rewatch.
The other major highlight, for me at least, was "I Got the Hat," Kristoffer Diaz's monologue performed by Daveed Diggs. The premise is simple: a healthcare worker making a thank-you video after his romantic partner drops off a goofy hat at his place. Diaz writes a lot of awkward, charming repetition into the script, capturing that feeling of not knowing what to say but not wanting to stop talking either. Hidden within the sweetly fumbling romance are a few cutting lines as well - Diggs's character works at a hospital, and there are a few shattering moments where he can't even give words to what he's seeing. There's no time where comedy and tragedy are more closely linked than a terrible crisis, and this play gets it.
These pieces may not be the kind of theatre you're used to, but they're still achieving what great theatre does: inviting audiences in to experience a little slice of a character's life. There are, obviously, things that we "need" more urgently than theatre performances, but when all this settles, we'll remember how the generosity and creativity of talented people like these performers and writers brought some laughter and light into a very bleak time.