The inaugural production at A.C.T.'s brand new Strand Theater on Market Street promised to be edgy, challenging, and envelope-pushing in ways that the theater company can't always be given the economic necessity of filling seats at their 1000-seat Geary Theater. That play, acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill's most recent work Love and Information, turns out to be a less than successful experiment in ensemble collage-narrative that feels like an anti-climactic beginning for this shiny new venue.
Where it falls short, I think, is in the relentless disconnection of the 57 mini-narratives that make up the piece. The play is performed with an ensemble of 12 actors, almost none of whose characters recur in more than one vignette. Each scene is punctuated with Churchill's signature, halting, overlapping style of dialogue in which characters are constantly interrupting, stopping short, and finishing each others' sentences. This can be beguiling at times, with these cleverly incomplete phrases arriving in flurries of realistic chatter. Sometime during the eighth or ninth vignette, though, as another brand new pair of characters arrives on stage to communicate something vague or vaguely cliched to each other about communication in the modern the world, I was already exhausted and itching for some connective thread to grasp on to.
Instead, new strangers continue to arrive and disappear. We see a father and son in a fishing camp off the grid, talking about how there's no internet or cell phone signal. There's are two police detectives coming out of an interrogation room, talking about a suspect but never revealing the nature of the crime. There are two teenage girls talking about a boy, possibly a celebrity, and all the details they know about him. And we see a wife texting her husband from a restaurant, their less than interesting text exchange projected on the back of the stage, arguing about why he hasn't shown up for dinner (and we see him in a bathrobe embracing a woman he's having an affair with).
Realizing a half hour into this 100-minute collage that there would be no return for any of these storylines, and that we would not be getting to know any of these characters for more than a couple of minutes, frankly I was getting annoyed. The only recurring story, in fact, isn't so much a story at all as it is just a few wordless glimpses of the same woman (played by the talented Sharon Lockwood), wandering solemnly through an urban landscape, struggling with depression, and being slighted by her fellow humans.
Themes of love, deception, technology, loneliness, and the nature of information are woven throughout, but there are no satisfying revelations or particularly poignant moments of connection save, perhaps, for a final vignette that centers on a couple trading extremely obscure bits of trivia. And though many of the performers do solid work, and the direction by Casey Stangl is well paced if stiff at times it is not the acting or the direction that is to blame for the play's lack of grounding, or satisfaction. The use of projections as a backdrop, at times taking live images from the stage and projecting them onto this enormous digital mirror, also feels more techno-gimmicky than clever.
And while Churchill's intent seems to be to portray contemporary times through this very disconnection and channel-flipping attention deficit, there's very little new ground covered that isn't discussed on the internet every day. We are slaves to our devices. We are becoming increasingly self-absorbed and less empathetic. We struggle to understand an increasingly complex and information-saturated world. And as much as I wanted to become caught up in the tidal wave of ideas and emotions, none of them are described richly enough, or elevated beyond the vague.
Hopefully, the new season at The Strand will prove more exciting, and upcoming plays will better live up to the great potential of this new space.