Thanks to technology, how we engage with modern entertainment is killing us. Reality TV, which isn’t real at all, but rather carefully scripted and packaged for consumption/ratings is rendering us and those who participate in it, into husks of meaningless identity.
Such is the thesis behind Laurence Klavan’s new surreal play Simprov, presented by Thunderclap Productions. While not exactly revelatory (who hasn’t worried about what shows like Big Brother, Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Love Island are doing to our collective senses of self) Simprov does present a frightening slippery slope model of where we might be heading.
The problem is, as is true for many theses turned into plays, the idea is far more compelling than the art it inspires.
We meet two couples as they forge different but intertwined paths. Barbara (Amanda Martinez) and Alan (Shane Warren Jones) are a middle-aged married couple in a rut. Alan is happy to order the same take-out night after night. Barbara is tired of “being hungry and then feeling full”. She’s desperately seeking “food that isn’t food.”
This quirky nature of Klavan’s writing, full of off-kilter declarations and metaphors, certainly catches our attention. Even gets a giggle now and then. But eventually, it grows wearisome when the words are more fleshed out than the characters speaking them.
What finally lights a fire for Barbara is a streamed reality show about a mismatched teenage couple falling in love (played by Chess MacElvaine and Noah Alderfer listed as Actress and Actor in the program). In no time at all, Barbara is obsessed with the show. Watching it day and night. She even wants to role-play the characters in her marriage bed with her husband.
Alan plays along for a while; Barbara is finally happy. They have something to watch together and bond over. But then the show is canceled due to scandal when it’s revealed that the actors are, in fact, acting and worse still, were both on a network show together in the past. All evidence to the contrary, Barbara refuses to believe it wasn’t real.
She spirals into full voyeur mania, attached to her computer 24/7 watching a man and woman do nothing but their daily tasks. That can’t be scripted, right? It’s just looking at people.
But we know who they are. It’s the same actor and actress, altered physically through several plastic surgeries on their agent’s instructions, in order to be recast and keep working.
If only Klavan had given us characters we could believe in.
Alan and Barbara get the worst of it. Through a plethora of short scenes that provide the scantest outlines of how a married couple might be, the couple play like soulless chess pieces dropped into the script to prove a point. Let them break up over her obsession, we think. Who cares?
We’ve seen the obsession leading to a break-up story before and we’ve seen it done with way more heart.
Klavan fares better with Actor and Actress, who while similarly thinly drawn, have a far superior trajectory.
With each gig they get and lose, the pair are forced to reinvent themselves or be discarded. New names, new looks, less talent, and more subservience to whatever the viewing public wants them to do. So much so that they become unrecognizable to each other and even themselves.
It’s an ominous commentary on what entertainment means in a modern age and how it sucks the life out of those performing it for our pleasure. A deeper, more nuanced look at this part of the narrative would have been a far more interesting focus for Klavan to noodle.
With such little character to work with, it’s almost unfair to pass judgment on the cast’s performance. But Martinez as Barbara and Alderfer as Actor do the heavy lifting and bring as much depth to their roles as possible. Nothing short of a small miracle here.
Director William Grayson tries to punch things up by populating the frustratingly large number of short, unsatisfying scenes with minimalist props. It doesn’t go well.
As chairs and large blocks are schlepped on and off the bare white stage every minute or so, we can’t help but think that the stagehands are working harder in this show than the cast is.
Grayson’s decision to smooth over those set changes with a techno Muzak loop also backfires as it results in a kind of hiccup musical sensation where it’s music up, music down in quick succession over and over again. The mood loses its sci-fi edge and wades deep into the annoying end of the pool.
Klavan has the outline here of something quite provocative. Or half an outline at any rate. Perhaps it’s better in this case to read the thesis and wait for the art to hopefully one day catch up.
Simprov continues through June 11 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, visit matchhouston.org or call 713-521-4533. $15 – $25.