The pandemic has produced two kinds of theatrical Netathons , which is my name for oversized online theatrical events by established artists in support of a charitable cause. The first are the star-studded variety shows, exemplified by the concert in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, “Take Me To The World.” In which each performer took turns singing a selection from the composer’s vast repertoire.
And then there are the anthologies of original short plays, almost all of them monologues, put together by pairing experienced playwrights with celebrated actors. The latest of these is The Homebound Project, which last night launched a 70-minute video of ten new plays — the first of three planned “editions” over the next five weeks enlisting some 50 playwrights and performers. (This is not to be confused with Round House Theatre’s similarly named Homebound series) Tickets cost $10 (or more, if you can afford it), the proceeds going to No Kid Hungry. Although this first edition embodies several of the central elements of this second, newly emerging genre, it somehow largely avoids what seem to be its potential pitfalls.
There seems something more problematic about these types of Netathons. We’re conditioned to expect an evening of scripted theater to tell a story with something close to a beginning, middle and end. The very effort at making these shows into huge, disparate and inclusive events undermines the coherence of the storytelling.
As much as I was initially impressed with 24 Hour Plays’ Viral Monologues, and continue to enjoy the work of selected playwrights (such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s), I’ve grown tired of the randomness of the stories, and the feeling of overload. Organizing around a theme doesn’t necessarily help. I recently saw a show entitled Felt Sad, Posted Frog (and other streams of global quarantine), which enlisted six playwrights from three continents to riff on life in lockdown. While there were some engaging moments, it didn’t just feel repetitious. I felt like they couldn’t tell me anything about the boredom and frustration of the experience that I didn’t already know.
The technical limitations in most of these shows can be grating — the Zoom flicker, the Instagram claustrophobia, the poor audio and lack of closed captioning (unlike network TV or Netflix.)
The first edition of The Homebound Project, which will remain online through May 10th, is presented on the higher-quality Vimeo, and includes the option of closed captioning. The quality of the content is generally high as well, although I liked some of the plays better than others. Several of the plays have surprise endings, which would be a shame to spoil; I will only say that I found the one with the surprise banjo funnier if less jolting than the one with the surprise goat, and that some of the surprises are the person to whom the character is speaking.
There is a theme (or, in writer parlance, a prompt) — “home” — but only a couple of the plays take this on directly, or connect it to sheltering at home during the pandemic. In Homesick by Qui Nguyen, the character portrayed by Raymond Lee riffs on the theme in rhyme: Home is…
“the place I spend all day in my pajamas
Eating takeout till I vomit
Where I play Fortnite – all night – till my eyeballs lose sight.
And I haven’t worn pants in – goddamn – a long time.”
Less directly, in Max Posner’s Father, William Jackson Harper seems to be saying a series of prayers, or perhaps just going crazy; his riffs are often funny and sometimes pointed: “What has become of my body? Father
let me go to dance class …Father, I have gone in a single millisecond from thinking that the ones wearing the masks were the assholes to thinking the ones who weren’t wearing the masks were the assholes…
Father, have I ever been essential?”
In Martyna Majok’s play, Thomas Sadoski sees his neighborhood Irish pub as his home:
“a human person needs three things in this life to live,” he tells the (unseen) bartender. “Food. Shelter. And once they got those? Once they got those, Davey? Then they just need a place to go to dream about The Rest.”
Sarah Ruhl goes further afield in her play, in which Jessica Hecht is a mother dealing with the crying demands of her twin three-year-olds (Hecht’s impersonation of the toddler tantrums, and corresponding parent exasperation, is hilarious.) Eventually, she learns some subtle, touching lessons from them.
Rajiv Joseph’s Eszter displays a similar progression in tone, from funny to moving, when Elizabeth Rodriguez explains that she frequently pretends to be talking on the wireless telephone in order to avoid encounters on the street.
Eliza Clark’s The Jessicas, is straightforwardly science fiction, in which Marin Ireland welcomes interstellar space travelers to their new home in a colony where she has lived alone for 15 years, all sensations simulated through pills.
The first edition of “The Homebound Project” goes quickly, especially if you fast forward through the five-minute intermission. It might be worth taking the time, as the messages on the screen during the intermission suggest:
“Go to the bathroom. There’s likely not a line”
“Snuggle your pet, who may also be enjoying the show. Revel in your shared theatrical experience and their new arts education.”
“Get a beverage. Enjoy not paying $16 for a bottle of water (consider donating that saved $16 to No Kid Hungry?)”
The plays in the first edition of “The Homebound Project” in order
Diversions by C.A. Johnson, performed by Alison Pill
Building Models by Ren Dara Santiago, performed by Glenn Davis
Port Isabel by Lucy Thurber, performed by Christopher Abbott
Homesick by Qui Nguyen, performed by Raymond Lee
What do you Want What do you Want What do you Want by Sarah Ruhl, performed by Jessica Hecht
Eszter by Rajiv Joseph, performed by Elizabeth Rodriguez
The Jessicas by Eliza Clark, performed by Marin Ireland
Love Letter to an Irish Pub by Martyna Majok, performed by Thomas Sadoski
Father by Max Posner, performed by William Jackson Harper
Some Combination of Goop and Oprah and You, by Catya McMullen, performed by Amanda Seyfried