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A play by phone and pushing buttons


The pandemic shutdown, now entering its seventh catastrophic month, has necessitated a certain creativity if any theater at all is to be produced or consumed.

Mostly, this has been through Zoom-derived entertainments, which as clever as some may be are, are usually no fun for the already Zoom-fatigued working stiffs from home.

Other theater companies have filled the void with fully filmed plays from their vaults, streaming online. Which are pretty much movies.

But one new electronic variation is eschewing the visual altogether by relying on the old fashioned touch-tone telephone.

The Telephonic Literary Union is a rotating New York collaboration of playwrights who have been creating little interactive audio bits since even before the pandemic (if anyone can remember back that far).

They were the choice to open an all-digital season at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company called Woolly on Demand, which will accompany its in-person attempts.

It's quite an impressive list of theatrical lights involved in the project, including Sarah Lunnie, a dramaturg for such interesting turns as "What the Constitution Means to Me," "A Doll's House, Part 2" and "Hillary and Clinton." Also on board: Stowe Nelson, production manager at public radio's "This American Life," and Yuvika Tolai, an associate producer at The Public Theater.

The current work, "Human Resources," includes the work of playwrights Brittany K. Allen, Christopher Chen, Hansol Jung and Zeniba Now.

It works like this: You buy a ticket (modestly priced at $7) which gives you an access code once you dial into their 800 number.

Then there are many choices from the robotic voice that answers. And listen closely because the options have recently changed, as they say:

"To file a claim for unhappiness, press one. For the department of consciousness rearrangement, press two. For technical support, press three. If you've exhausted all other options and just want to speak to a goddam human being, press four."

Such is the realistic, but slightly off kilter manner of the experimental theater work, whose participants are then free to let their fingers do the walking down the various electronic rabbit holes.

You never will be able to talk to an actual human being, but eventually you may hear the voice of actor Jin Ha (who describes himself as the first hot Asian Burr from "Hamilton") tries to do more than just joke around. Instead, he sounds sincere as he tries to ease the pain, and does so by reading in entirety the short poem by Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things." Which is actually a really great thing to hear at the moment. Just the thing an actual recorded hotline to ease despair would be right to recite.

But it closes like this: "If your claim has been resolved, press one. If you would like to hear the poem again, please press two. If you'd like to hear the poem in a very bad Italian accent, press three. If you'd like to hear it in a Valley Girl voice, press four. If you'd like to hear it in an impression of Barack Obama, press five."

And hearing Wendell Berry in the voice of a Valley Girl kind of ruins the whole thing.

There's less they can do to address race relations, as the voice informs the caller: "we are experiencing a large volume of calls and our operators are all busy."

Amid a long run of hold music, the robotic operator finally says "I'm impressed you are still holding," After a while, she confides: "Our operators have gone to bed, they are exhausted... talking about this stuff takes a toll on the soul."

But eventually there is a redirection to a helpful piece, a 1993 interview of Toni Morrison on Charlie Rose, in which she explains white supremacy: "If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem...My feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it."

There is an odd exchange between two people in technical assistance line. And just the kind of trippy itineraries you'd expect in Consciousness Rearrangement.

It isn't for me to describe every possibility; the fun is for people to follow their own paths, which they can do for four days.

While it doesn't really fulfill the desire for live theater after six months, the Telephonic Literary Union's "Human Resources" makes for an amiable time filler, pocked with sardonic humor and a few surprises. But it might take a while to warm to the format (especially if you've been on hold the previous hour with some pandemic-affected business trying to answer a question).

Running time: As determined by the participant. A link allows return visits within a four day period, day or night.

The Telephonic Literary Company's "Human Resources" will be presented in four four-day windows, Oct. 1-4, 8-11, 15-18 and 22-25. Each ticket comes with an access code good for the entire period, Thursdays through Sunday. Tickets are available at 202-393-3939 or online.

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