BWW Review: The 24-Hour Plays Viral Monologues Offer a Dose of Humor and Heartbreak
For the third time, the 24 Hour Plays presented a set of "Viral Monologues on March 31, once again packing together some of the best talent of stage and screen to produce short but impactful bits of remote theatre. As the shutdowns continue and it becomes increasingly obvious that "regular" theatre isn't starting back up as soon as we'd hoped, it's also increasingly obvious that adjusted, adapted performances like these are more important than ever.
We all know that there are more important things happening in the world than the performing arts, of course. But right now, what are we all turning to for comfort and to pass the time? We're turning to books, TV, movies, streaming plays, music - we're turning to art. The monologues in this edition of the event seem to understand that duality of providing us with some sense of normal entertainment and something that's not terrible and life-or-death with an understanding that there's also a lot more that we're worried about. Still, it will always matter that we can talk about things through fiction that we can't talk about in real life, and it will always matter that we can escape, even for three to ten minutes, to something funny or clever or just plain entertaining.
A few of the monologues deal with one of the most relatable aspects of the lockdowns and quarantine life: the lack of human connection. Or, to be more specific, the lack of romantic and sexual connection for anyone who's not riding this out with an existing live-in partner. It's a way of depicting how everything simultaneously feels like massive stakes but also incredibly small and intimate at times like these, and everyone is handling it differently.
In Liliana Padilla's "5 Mile Radius," performed by Lauren Pritchard, a woman sends a video message to an old high school acquaintance who, we learn, she stumbled across and friended on Facebook. What starts out as sort of a funny arrested-development ramble from someone who's still dwelling on high school quickly turns into a cringey onslaught of oversharing. It's funny, but also a little bit sad, as it's obvious that she's just craving human connection and getting increasingly desperate. In a similar vein, there's "Might As Well Get Back Together," written by Mario Correa and performed by Derrick Baskin. Baskin's character video calls an ex from a few years ago with a long list of why they should get back together during the pandemic. It's a wry, deadpan piece complete with very matter-of-fact recounting of the horrible things they said to each other during their breakup, plus one very timely (and hilariously on-point) rant about the proliferation of TV streaming services.
Non-essential workers and their stumbles also get some attention in this edition of the plays. On the one hand, you have "Slip Slidin' Away" by Cat Miller. Will Hochman plays a kids' music teacher who's been giving virtual lessons and jam session up until this point, where he has to explain to his students why their lessons are stopping. It vacillates between a goofy kid-friendly persona and the character's very real, adult fears and frustrations that even when "all this" is over, things won't be back to normal for a long time. "Day 53" by David Cross features Alison Wright as another non-essential worker: a tarot card reader who's doing virtual readings for her clients. It's a darkly funny monologue about the nature of non-essential work during this time and features a deeply charismatic performance by Wright.
Some of the humor is turned directly on the entertainment industry. The very funny "Audition for an Indie Movie 2005" by Sarah DeLappe features Sienna Miller and Tara Summers as actresses doing exactly what the title states. It's a sharp skewering of those terrible mid-00s indie movies we all remember that were all exactly the same. Packed with all-too-familiar absurd, pretentious language, it's like the Old Spice commercials formed an unholy union with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and it's exactly the laugh I needed. In a similar vein is "Chain," Rachel Axler's play which casts Christopher Oscar Peña as a Shawn Mendes uber-fan. The play features phrases such as "Shawn is bigger than the virus" and "This is not a chain letter, this is a movement" with such gleeful skewering of superfan pretension and celebrity self-absorption.
On the other side of the "entertainment industry" themed plays, we've got Hugh Dancy in Donald Margulies's "Wow." Dancy plays an actor practicing his potential acceptance speeches in the mirror. Although it starts out as a funny exercise of varied intonations of the same pat speech-y language we've all seen on award shows, it turns into a much sharper reflection on how this character has spent a life obsessing over acceptance from an industry that's both shaped and destroyed him.
There's even a few plays that try to add a note of gallows humor to the whole situation. "Transition" by David Lindsay-Abaire has T.R. Knight playing, essentially, an afterlife bureaucrat whose job it is to help escort the newly-deceased into the afterlife. It's humorously morbid but also digs into the foibles of bureaucracy - death doesn't change some things, apparently! There's also "In Case of Emergency," written by Nora Fitzpatrick and performed by David Krumholtz with a hilariously thick accent. Krumholtz's character goes into ridiculous detail outlining his final wishes for when he dies (which won't be now, but someday, he says). It's the performance equivalent of those morbid PR emails every freelance writer I know has been getting, advertising the services of lawyers who specialize in writing wills, and the dark humor helps cut through what's otherwise just plain dark.
It's not all humor, though. "Invincible" is written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and performed by Erin Darke, but based on an interview with an anonymous New York City nurse. It's a necessary and devastating monologue about the dedication and fears of the front-line health care workers trying to get us all through this crisis without losing their own lives in the process. There's a visceral fear and anger as the character shares her stories about the lack of protective equipment, the way individuals are trying valiantly to fill the gaps that corporations and government are leaving open, and the horrible realization that they can't even offer basic human comfort like a hug.
Perhaps the most gutting play in the batch, though, is Howard Sherman's "The Hardest Part," performed by Francis Jue. It's told by a father who has found out that his son was the victim of an anti-Asian hate crime in New York City, spurred by a horrible intersection of virus panic and latent racism that's been bubbling for too long. Watching the father fall apart and tear into a society that has allowed this hate to fester is absolutely necessary and absolutely gutting. It's a reminder again of why we keep making plays in times like these: there are things that need to be said and stories that need to be heard, and as long as a theatre community is around, there will be people who will try to tell those stories.