It’s often said that great actors can make compelling drama just by reading the phone book. But should they? Do we really want the Yellow Pages aspiring to the status of Shakespeare?
These dispiriting questions arose for me while watching “Smithtown,” a play by Drew Larimore made up of four linked monologues that contain nothing very original except what the cast brings to them. Michael Urie, Ann Harada, Colby Lewis and Constance Shulman give riveting performances in material so thin it barely demands a paper clip.
The technology that binds us is in fact the theme. Phone books may be things of the past, but “Smithtown” treats modern communication platforms — Zoom, email, Facebook, text messaging, YouTube and others — as if they were strange new forces teeming with unheard-of dangers.
The first monologue makes this shopworn theme explicit. Urie plays Ian A. Bernstein, a graduate student teaching a class called An Introduction to Ethics in Technology at a fictional college in a small Midwestern town that gives the play its title. At the class’s first meeting — or, rather, online session — Ian immediately veers from the syllabus to provide what he thinks will be a mind-blowing example of high-tech horror.
But the example is both too familiar and too grotesque to function as drama. Set your alarm for a spoiler alert because here comes the plot: Having been dropped by his girlfriend, Ian texts Melissa — “famous for being the No. 1 human doormat of the student body” — with demands for sexy photos. She provides them, Ian instantly ghosts her, the photos get disseminated and tragedy ensues.
This is presented in an entirely upbeat, faux-professorial manner that makes everyone involved, especially Ian, look not only insensitive but also moronic. Or it would, if Urie were not so expert at pulling the thread of moral anxiety within the artificial character to animate his performance.
The remaining three monologues — each, like the first, about 15 minutes long — connect to Ian’s in ways evidently intended to illuminate contrasts between real and virtual intimacy, between engagement and mere witness.
In “Text Angel,” Ann Harada plays Bonnie, an excessively chipper former guidance counselor running a small communications business from her basement. Customers pay her to send their loved ones helpful text messages: some meant as validation, some as slaps of tough love. When the wrong kind of message goes to the wrong kind of person, Bonnie gets mixed up in Melissa’s story.
Likewise, in “If You Were Here,” Lewis portrays a “groundbreaking” photographer currently working as the head of social outreach at the Smithtown Heritage Center. The YouTube video he’s making to promote local treasures (a renovated window, a settler’s sock) quickly devolves into a fatuous humblebrag about his connection to the tragedy: He took pictures of it. Art, he tells us, prioritizes documentation over intervention, lest one miss the beauty inherent in the victim’s struggle.
By the time we get to the final monologue, the fog of condescension around these Midwestern nitwits is too thick to see through. And yet Shulman, playing Cindy, a bereaved woman welcoming new neighbors to her kitchen with feeble jokes and an explosion of lemon cookies, somehow produces visible, relatable emotions. The evidence of watery eyes and shaky hands is incontrovertible.
The opportunity to see actors working at such a high level can be worth it regardless of the play but, again, is every play worthy of such actors? This one, a production of the Studios of Key West, is so slick and pandemic-ready in its minimal physical (and attentional) requirements that thespians everywhere will probably vie to star in it; they’ll smell hot content for their sizzle reels even when there’s no meat.
But it’s not the job of actors to make a play sensible and meaningful; that responsibility falls on playwrights and directors. Stephen Kitsakos, the director of “Smithtown,” seems to have focused his energy on delivering a very neat, shiny package regardless of what’s in it. Larimore, too, seems interested mostly in the surface, bending his characters to the concept instead of the other way around.
To be fair, Larimore does know how to write piquant, playable dialogue. Which may not be saying much; according to the great actor theory, so did Bell Telephone.
Through Feb. 27; tskw.org
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