BUT NEXT NOT THIS (Hella Fresh Theater & Hum’n’bards): A bi-coastal experiment

Alexis Pozonsky as Amanda in BUT NEXT NOT THIS.

Alexis Pozonsky as Amanda in BUT NEXT NOT THIS.

In a row house in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, Amanda (Lexi Pozonzky) is ostensibly making soup. There’s no aroma and nothing simmers on the stove, but she chops a few onions on the kitchen counter. The TV is on in the living room, and the play begins almost imperceptibly with a phone call. Amanda’s friend Bonita (Anna Michael) takes the call. It’s her sister calling from LA, where the other part of this live show is taking place remotely and simultaneously.

[A program note discloses that playwright John Rosenberg ties the genesis of this work to one time when he was making soup in his kitchen, watching headlights out a window, and thinking someone might come in and stab him.]

Nearly nonexistent production values work well with this extremely laid back approach to theater-making. If you walked in late you wouldn’t immediately realize that a play was going on. It’s more like being invited to someone’s house and hanging out on the sofa while they forget about you and take a long phone call. The actors walk back and forth through the living room, and take turns listening and talking on the phone. They’re not visibly trying to entertain, yet their nuanced improvised performances maintain the attention of their audience of about a half dozen. It takes good actors to pull this off. Though Michael has appeared in previous Rosenberg plays, Pozonzky never met the director in person; he directed the piece via Skype, from California.

We don’t see the two actors who are participating in this play in the West (Jill Galbraith and Lyssa Samuel), and they don’t see the Philadelphia team. Whatever the LA characters are saying on the speaker phone comes up faint and fast. We hear very little. It’s one thing to not see the other half of the cast. It’s another thing to neither see them nor hear them properly. This technical difficulty seriously impacted my experience on the day I saw it.

In the Fishtown house nothing much happens that the audience in LA need be concerned about missing. They do know there’s a concerned and angry woman on the phone. However, at the LA house something could be transpiring, and the Philadelphia audience has little access to what may be going on or what their audience is experiencing.

The idea is to leave the actors in the dark as to what exactly is going on at the other location. However, this setup doesn’t allow for tasty dramatic irony, which could happen if audiences could see what the actors can’t. What we can surmise here in Philly comes primarily from the actors’ responses on the  phone. At one point an angry Bonita claims that her sister faked a traumatic brain injury, and she gets the unwelcome news that the sister has met with a nuts ex-girlfriend out in LA. “During a seemingly innocuous phone conversation, Juanita ambushes Bonita armed with the sordid details supplied by the ex-friend.” [Hella Fresh] This is vitally important, but due to the tech issue not all these disclosures were clear to me or to my companion.

While Rosenberg’s characteristic shoot-from-the-hip crazy language has been toned down, his particular style surfaces: Amanda says she felt left out when she encountered a pedophile who didn’t even try to do anything to her. She also says that Asians decline to rule out any possibilities, “They don’t say ‘no’. They say ‘Not yet’.” The riff is used to humorous effect.

A couple of weeks ago, thinking it would be a great idea for a bi-coastal show to have a bi-coastal review, I approached a few LA-area theater writers online to see if they’d be interested being the eyes on the ground there and collaborating on a dual review. But no takers. Alas! Or maybe hella bummer?

The playwright, a devilishly clever conceptual guy, came up with the crazy bold idea of a simultaneous live theater experience in California and Pennsylvania. It’s a great idea for an experiment, but I’m not convinced that the reality plays out as well as the concept.

[Hum’n’bards at 1318 Crease Street, Philadelphia, and Hella Fresh Theater at 3826 Mentone Avenue, Culver City, LA] October 21-29, 2017. hellafreshtheater.com

 

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.