Monday, November 09, 2009

A Disappointing Dystopia

A good idea is sometimes just that--a good idea. Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt, currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street through November 21, has an intriguing premise, but one that has not been developed enough and leaves too many unanswered questions. Based on the press release, "Set in a darkening future, What Once We Felt follows a writer's journey through the political world of publishing, as her novel becomes the last print published novel," I was expecting a play about the importance of the printed word, which as a book fiend, seemed right up my alley. Instead, the play was mostly plot and little substance.

The play takes place in a future where there appear to be no men, though where they went is unclear. Society is divided into the working-class Tradepacks and the upper-class Keepers. Only Keepers can reproduce by downloading babies, but even they are only allowed one download. The Transition promises to rid society of all Tradepacks. Macy O. Blonsky (Mia Barron), a Keeper, is desperate to get her novel Terror's Peon, published. At her agent's (Ellen Parker) request, she gives up her one download to ensure its publication as the last print novel. She didn't count on an editor (Opal Alladin) who may not have read the book or a manipulative line editor (Marsha Stephanie Blake) changing the ending to fit her own agenda.

Another plot focuses on a couple, Benita (Lynn Hawley) and Yarrow (Parker), trying to download a baby. Benita receives an error message and they can either accept the "error" or cancel, but they decide to go through with it because it's their only chance for a child. If Yarrow is also a Keeper, why can't she use her one download instead? Not that everything has to be spelled out, but Healy hasn't fully established the rules for the world she has created, or if she has, she hasn't made them clear to the audience.

Kris Stones's futuristic sets are appealing, but even they can't ground the audience. Director Ken Rus Schmoll hasn't helped his playwright in drawing out the bigger picture from her story. The six actors adequately maneuver through their multiple roles, but it's hard to inject life into characters who are more half-baked symbols than anything else.

What Once We Felt opens the new season of LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater's initiative to foster new playwrights and attract a young audience with $20 prices. It's a worthwhile endeavor, but this is not the play to usher in a new audience, or for that matter, any audience.

Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo
Update: This New York Magazine interview answers some of the questions I had about the play.

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