Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven, a world premiere directed by Allen McKelvey at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, raises some interesting questions about how traditional media, such as plays and novels, can incorporate new media and new ways of communicating. Can you fictionalize Facebooking, tweeting, texting, and instant messaging without sounding phony and ridiculous? Fads, brand names, and recent technology can jar us out of a fiction, somehow betraying the text they’re embedded in. It’s hard to say why this should be, when there’s nothing weird about a character in a novel or play picking up the practically obsolete telephone. But there is something odd about reading about texting, or watching a play about it. In Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, one chapter unfolds as an instant message conversation. It works mostly because of Smith’s uncanny ear for the way people talk (or in this case, chat). She puts to good use the misspellings and interruptions intrinsic to these exchanges.
Our Practical Heaven pivots on a generational divide—two middle-aged women, “honorary sisters” Willa (Julia Brothers) and Sasha (Anne Darragh), visit Sasha’s mother, Vera (Joy Carlin), at a tumbledown beach house, their wayward daughters in tow. The girls provide running commentary on the action of the play using their cellphones—as the actors twiddle their thumbs, the text of their conversations is projected on a winged wall at the back of the stage (set design by Mikiki Uesugi and video design by Micah J. Stieglitz).
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This seems like a great idea because it’s true that many of us interact with reality in this mediated way. We think in tweets, in status updates; we are always “out of it” because if we’re not actually commenting on what’s happening as it happens, we’re imagining how we will comment on it when we can finally get to a computer. The idea of representing this commentary as lines of text projected over the action of the play, literally providing the “captions” to the pictures we’re seeing (as the playwright himself describes it in an interview published in the program) is intriguing. In practice, it doesn’t work, probably because.it feels a little silly to watch the actors pantomime texting, and it’s often difficult to follow what’s happening onstage as we try to track one conversation in “real life,” one on the screen, and all of the other subtext flying back and forth in pouts and longing glances.
Furthermore, the play’s perspective on this activity is more alienated than critical, the perspective of an older person bemused and perplexed by the ways of the younger generation. (I think, though, the moment for this bemusement has passed—Joyce Carol Oates has a Twitter account, and my sixty-year-old mother has an iPad.) The women call the girls’ phones “gizmos,” a middle-aged character asks a young person, “Are you Twittering?,” and the phrase “so many new ways to avoid communicating” gets employed twice, which is twice too many. SMH.
It may also be that the “captions” are too much because the text is already overburdened. A belabored and muddled bird metaphor struggles to map every aspect of every character’s anguish and joy. When Magz (Lauren Spencer), the family outcast, meets the others on a birding jaunt, reference is made to a lost bird that joins an alien flock, just hoping to blend in. Ms. Spencer blinks furiously, like she’s worried we won’t get it. There’s a lot of energetic acting and reacting—mostly it’s the daughters rolling their eyes and huffing at things their mothers say. As unlikeable as the older women are (Sasha is pathetically neurotic and Willa may actually be evil), their daughters are worse. There’s nothing sympathetic about their irritated outbursts, which at times seem cruel and at others simply petulant. It seems obvious that Mr. Clarvoe wrote them this way intentionally, because of the way he’s written the grandmother, Vera, who is delightful and adored by everyone (in the play’s second half, the gaps in her memory create sweet opportunities to ask questions and tell stories). The sustained sarcasm and hurt feelings poison the play, so that when a character expresses joy or insight or whimsy we just resent her—she doesn’t have a claim on our interest. A play in which the action consists in watching angst move, like a demonic possession, from one body to another, doesn’t function if most of the characters are repellent.
There are some striking ideas Our Practical Heaven leaves underdeveloped. Magz has a mysterious illness that causes her to be in terrible pain most of the time. The family is weirdly tight-lipped about it, except for Vera, who says, “You turned out to be kind of allergic to yourself, didn’t you?” (Incidentally, Ms. Spencer’s retort is the funniest moment in the play). “Allergic to yourself” has the potential to be a dead-on epigrammatic criticism of pop culture, but the play drops the idea.
At the beginning of the second half, the girls float on inner tubes in the local pond; their grandmother says, “Fifty years from now, you’ll all be here with your children.” Magz says, “No way this’ll be here in fifty years,” and it doesn’t seem to bother her much. The notion is often advanced that the current crop of twentysomethings is uniquely adrift, lost, or apathetic (or, more realistically, unemployed), but the play’s suggestion of a kind of existential ennui brought about by climate change is an intriguing one. In a piece that is mostly about how the young appear to their elders, this could be an interesting fulcrum—Baby Boomers watch in dismay as their youngest children come of age, only to inherit a dying planet. Though the play makes frequent references to climate change and ecological disasters (including the BP oil spill, or an imaginary one just like it), it can’t quite seem to climb inside the concept in a way that’s meaningful. Though climate change has, at this point, killed or displaced millions, in Our Practical Heaven it mainly exists to provide metaphors for the uncomfortable dynamics in a fundamentally unlikeable middle-class family.
Our Practical Heaven runs through March 3 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.