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Review: APARTMENT LIVING at Skylight Theatre Company & Playwrights' Arena

Can we consider something a "play" if a writer simply strings together a bunch of Facebook posts?

Review: APARTMENT LIVING at Skylight Theatre Company & Playwrights' Arena

If every theatre review compared each show to the last presentation by the same company, we would be lost beyond the already limited capabilities of "thumbs up vs thumbs down" or "three and a half stars".

Thus, I will refrain from extolling Inda Craig Galván's A Hit Dog Will Holler while responding to Skylight Theatre and Playwrights' Arena's latest, Apartment Living by Boni B Alvarez. I will say this: if both pieces stem from the same germinating idea, an attempt by an established playwright to respond to the universal realities of the past two years, Apartment Living needs serious care, thought, and revision to be worthy of the same consideration as her predecessor.

I can forgive the fact that opening night ran significantly longer than we were told it would. I can forgive the belabored rhythms as actors struggled to unload bricks of unnatural dialogue. I can also forgive the way every actor in this piece is stylistically in a different world from the others- one shouting as if we were in a Theatre Four times as large, another straight off of the Disney Channel. I cannot, however, forgive the presentation of a melodrama which parrots the course of the past two years without a single original joke (Tiger King? Zoom fatigue? In 2022?!), a single original observation (quarantine was difficult? In 2022?!), or even an interesting 'what if' moment (What if someone you love contracts COVID? What if the pandemic unearthed people's true colors? In 2022?!)

I speak only for my own experience at this play, but I felt captive to a trite retelling of the past two years with no new context, no challenge to the zeitgeist, and little to praise in the piece. The audience was, arguably, more fascinating than what was happening on stage. About half an hour into the performance, when it had become abundantly clear to everyone present that we would not be leaving the theatre with any pearls of wisdom or new perspectives on universal hardships, the collective of people sharing space decided to reframe the unfolding melodrama as a comedy. Though there was nary a joke discernible in the script, determined to salvage our shared 90 minutes, the throng around me decided to laugh.

One character slates for a self-tape audition. Cue riotous laughter. An elderly nurse wheezes, urging her son to be strong since she has COVID. Cue forced laughter. The evening became a testament to the imperceptible unity an audience can form amongst itself. Many present knew the playwright (who was also present), and a collective desire to enjoy the evening pervaded. That said, our desires to appreciate the piece did not prevent the exiting throng to immediately critique what we had seen- "Chekhov's gun. They were having an affair! I was waiting for his wife to find out," wailed one group once out of earshot on the street.

I've long felt that a standing ovation (especially at a premiere or opening night) has become entirely customary. I do not remember the last opening night I attended where at least one eager row of attendees stood to applaud the efforts of the artists involved. Yet, as the cast stood before us and received a polite smattering of applause, not a single person made a move to rise.

There are no bones to be made that this script is not excellently crafted. Its structure, plot, dialogue, message (or lack thereof) do not give much to analyze. A smattering of scenes toward the end could be entirely deleted to ease the belabored nature of the performance, and at least two of the characters could be removed entirely. But even these changes feel like drops in an ocean of changes that maybe stem from a key question artists must embrace as we move forward: Do we really need to see this sh*t on stage?

Maybe in 200 years, historians will be happy this script was written as it encapsulates so much of the basic realities of our lives. But I live in 2022. I use the internet. I saw hundreds of jokes about Tiger King and Zoom meetings and WFH hygiene. I participated in those jokes, sharing them and contributing some myself. Alvarez' play does nothing more than conglomerate liberal Facebook posts into one physical space. This act of curation may once have been considered an artist's prerogative, but in 2022, we all act as curators of thought, screenshooting Tweets or sending TikToks to the group chat. With that reality in mind, the theatre needs to step beyond and have something more to say.

Alex Calle's amorphous set design is really cool. I'm interested to hear where conversations around this play may go. More information here.



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