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A CurtainUp Review

It's your job — you're not the one who took it away from anyone. You certainly didn't take it away from me. I'm not angry at you. I'm angry at a lot of things — global warming and red tape and the fact that everyone else is brimming with such anger these days, everyone's ready to go off on anyone at not even the slightest provocation when there are so many bigger things to be riled about — no one even watches the news because they think that shows them that the world is going to shit but then they don't know what's happening, they're uninformed, and they're still tense, they can't let it go, even if they've traded knowledge for exercise or yoga or . . . —Robyn, on the phone with technical support,
The characters in There or Here, the Hypothetical Theater Company's new production about the effects of outsourcing, rarely speak to one another. Numerous scenes are conducted on telephones, with the two characters occupying the same stage but not the same space, standing awkwardly with phones held to their ears, delivering impassioned speeches to no one.

During the rare occasions on which two or more actors occupy the same space, they often fail to make eye contact: Protagonist Robyn marches in and out of her bedroom, packing while her mother cautions her about her course of action. She faces a wall of portraits (the audience) while discussing the surrogacy process with the doctor who runs the program, and converses with husband Ajay while he sits and bed and she perches on a chair, facing away. As a result of these directorial choices by Amy Feinberg, even the conversations tend to feel like interlocking monologues, that lack any real interpersonal cÎonnection and grow wearisome.

Playwright Jennifer Maisel has an adept way with a wisecrack, and when her characters do get to speak to each other in units shorter than full paragraphs, their zingers can provide a satisfying sizzle. When the monologues claim the stage, though — and claim it they do for most of the play's 95 minutes— all the air seems to go out of the room. This is especially true when tiresome main character. While neither the director or playwright may intend us to find Robyn a lovably madcap comic everywoman, but instead, the game but somewhat two-dimensional performance from Annie Meisels makes her come off as utterly narcissistic, endlessly willing to burden those with whom she stares the stage with long, rambling, sub-profound musings on love, life after cancer, and the curiosities of computers. One wonders why her fellow characters— including the technical support representative whom she inexplicably charms — seem content to let her rattle on. The audience may wish they were not so indulgent.

Given how much of themselves —their intimate lives, their closely-held opinions — Maisel's characters are happy to reveal to utter strangers, it is curious to realize some time into the play that one has almost no sense of these characters as people. It is tempting to invoke the old "show, don't tell" mantra since these characters are certainly telling and not showing. Still, the problematic lack of characterization seems to stem from a certain formal imperative: characters who are less people pursuing their own ends and more collections of personal and socioeconomic characteristics maneuvered through a geopolitically inflected choreography than three-dimensional people.

Alok Tewari does a nice job with the parts of his role as Ajay that involve interpersonal interaction, but makes out badly with a lengthy monologue about his history in fast-food service. (It's hard to blame him: the task, delivering a big chunk of intimate dialogue to a stranger who is both behind him on the stage and removed by a fast-food speaker box while sitting immobilized in a car, may well be an impossible one.) However, that monologue constitutes the Maisel's script's only real attempt to flesh out Ajay, and so for much of the play, he is largely a cipher.

It is strange to see the concerns of a majority-Southeast Asian cast of characters sing backup to the problems of an upper-middle-class white American cancer survivor though she may be. Robyn is never confronted about the casual entitlement that she displays throughout (correcting the Indian character who pronounces Indian-born Ajay's name in an Indian fashion, putting tech support representatives on the spot with sarcastic remarks about outsourcing). It left me wondering if the play itself has given her a pass, ultimately singing her praises through the mouth of Rajit, the cabdriver who once resented Robyn as an ignorant tourist but has since seen the error of his ways.

Much of the script is devoted to somewhat dated jokes about technology and its effect on interpersonal communication. Sex is had by phone and by instant message, but never involves physical contact between two human beings. Like the primacy of the monologue form, this seems to gesture at a message about the disconnectedness with which we live our lives in a globalized age — but ultimately, nothing here transcends the material that has filled countless op-ed pages over the last ten years. Without characters of substance, There or Here merely tells us what we already knew, moving cardboard cutouts representing global issues around a stage instead of giving us people trying to maneuver a strange, changed world.
There or Here
Playwright: Jennifer Maisel
Directed by Amy Feinberg
Cast: Annie Meisels (Robyn), Alok Tewari (Ajay), Purva Bedi (Neera/She), Judy Rosenblatt (Dr. Vittal/Ellen), Shalin Agarwal (Rajit/Raj), Deepti Gupta (Hope/Voice)
Set Design: Mark Symczak
Costume Design: Jessica Reed
Lighting Design: Tim Kaufman
Sound Design: Tim Cramer
Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton
Choreography: Raji Shah
Graphic Design: Martin Miller
Running Time: 95 minutes without an intermission
The Hypothetical Theater Company at the 14th St Theater, 344 E. 14th St., 212/780-0800 x254
From 8/28/08; opening 9/08/08; closing 9/28/08
7pm Thursday, 8pm Friday & Saturday, 2pm Sunday
Tickets $18
Reviewed by Mollie Eisenberg September 8
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