Review: "The Living Room Plays" Interrogate How We Live With Each Other

The Living Room Plays

Presented by Eden Theater Company via Zoom

July 16, 2020

The Pedicure

Written and performed by Annie Larussa and Mark Moses

First Day

Devised by Amanda Enzo with Diane Davis; performed by Amanda Enzo; directed by Diane Davis

snapped-shot

Written by Mario Louis Gonzalez; directed by Ran Xia; featuring Frank Humphrey

The second in Eden Theater Company's three-part series of "room plays"—short plays performed on Zoom that explore some aspect of the isolation that has defined American life under the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—shifts from the bedroom to the living room (you can read our review of The Bedroom Plays here). The Living Room Plays features three more diverse responses to the series's theme (one of which moves beyond the context of the pandemic, a first for the series so far). There is a greater emphasis on the social this time around, as opposed to the focus on individual experience in The Bedroom Plays, which is perhaps an effect of the additional temporal distance from the initial shock of adjustment—as well, perhaps, of the fact that one cannot contemplate isolation without contemplating relationality. And addressing a vital area of social relations, the performance itself acted as a benefit, with all donations given to the Equal Justice Initiative, which "is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society."
Mark Moses and Annie Larussa. Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
The Pedicure, written and performed by Annie Larussa and Mark Moses, begins by establishing that its characters are in their two hundred and forty-third day of isolation. Seated on a couch, a man, Miles (Moses), talks to a woman, Amy, off-screen (Larussa) about her abortive trip to the store and her hatred of how they must live. In response, Miles offers her a pedicure and she joins him on the couch. Because Amy was off-screen, we expected a cut to another Zoom window, perhaps with a background faking that they were in the same room, and it says something about the psychology of pandemic life that it was surprising, almost strange, to see two actors share a physical space and touch each other. As Miles rubs the woman's feet and paints her toenails, they talk about her day at work, which involves some unexpected (and funny) turns. In the end, though, something upsets the equilibrium in this particular living room, and the audience is forced to rethink the scene that they have just witnessed. Larussa and Moses exude warmth and trust in Amy and Miles's interactions, which heightens the play's ultimate bittersweetness, and the play's denouement cleverly prompts the audience to consider the importance of fantasy and perspective.
Amanda Enzo. Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
The consideration of perspective overtly occupies the center of the next two plays. In First Day, devised by Amanda Enzo with director Diane Davis, Enzo is Dr. NWA, an art history professor who is introducing her distance-learning class to the course's focus on decolonization. She is upfront about the failure of the "American Experiment," and leads her sometimes uninformed, sometimes resistant students through the ideas that art examines human activities and is itself a form of history, with all of the issues of power and oppression involved in how history is constructed. She confronts her students—whose position the audience occupies in a way that arguably addresses each individual viewer in a way that performance in a theater could not—with how the United States has always mythologized the politics of property and the ways in which brutality creates profit, as well as how white America has both defined and Othered American Blackness. The play makes great use of screen sharing as Dr. NWA provides her students with a range of examples including a painting of Columbus and an 1830s cartoon depicting a white man kneeling on a Black man's neck. Enzo gives a potent performance with some touches of sardonic humor and ultimately, the play challenges the students, and thus the audience, to recognize that, without the excuse or willful adoption of ignorance, there is consequently no excuse for inaction. 

Frank Humphrey. Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
The final play of the trio, Mario Louis Gonzalez's snapped-shot, takes place in an America in even worse shape than the one that we currently occupy. The protagonist, named Freedom (Frank Humphrey), lives in a United States destroyed by nuclear conflict (and his living room looks more like a garage). Freedom passes the time debating with Fallen, an aspect of himself rendered as an off-screen voice. The conversation that we witness begins with asking what matters and thinking about how people look for connection, even if the ways in which they do are themselves meaningless. In part through relating the conversation to how life on Earth used to be, Freedom/Fallen ends up (re)considering Abraham Lincoln, whom Freedom sees as a hero, and the Civil War, which Fallen asserts is the same old conflict of rich versus rich, with emancipation a result rather than a motivation (evidenced by the way that the country then found a way to maintain slavery economically). Again, questions of who creates and controls narratives and from what perspectives come to the fore, and Humphrey brings a jittery energy to his lone post-apocalyptic survivor Freedom that both contrasts to his comparatively unruffled Fallen and lends urgency to "their" disagreements.

The Living Room Plays evolves the Eden Theater Company's isolation-themed short play series in new directions from the initial installment that are perhaps more biting if equally entertaining. Intimate in scope and expansive in aim, The Living Room Plays take audiences on a journey through the ways that we do, don't, and might make room to live with one another.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards 

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