Chicago Theatre Review
Technology is Confusing
stop. reset – Goodman Theatre
At a Chicago publishing company who, for many years, has been dedicated to printing books aimed at African American readers of all ages, we meet Alexander Amos and his staff. Now that we’re well into the 21st century, people (particularly those of a certain age) are finding that printed material has all but disappeared, only to be replaced by their electronic counterparts. Newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and books are all are fast becoming obsolete. Indeed, most libraries have traded their old-fashioned card catalogues in favor of a computerized form for locating materials; in addition they’ve replaced their decaying paper tomes with an assortment of books-on-CD and e-books. Looking for information now can begin with an internet search, particularly on Wikipedia. An individual wishing to be kept in-the-know nowadays can simply watch any of thousands of TV channels available on cable, simply search the internet for fun and games or check his smartphone for news bites. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest are the new, electronic sources (or, as Neil Gaiman called them, the American Gods) for seeking entertainment, keeping in touch and learning moment-by-moment what’s going on in this world.
Regina Taylor’s overwhelming, mind-blowing play is set in the office of Amos’ publishing house, a room surrounded by walls of books and plasma screens that offer works of art and inspiration. The books, especially, have provided the publisher with companionship, compfort, provocative imaginary adventures and decades of magical memories. On his desk sits the family Bible, a book which has been passed down from the days when Amos’ ancestors were slaves. For Alexander Amos (played with relish and passion by the masterful Eugene Lee), living means being surrounded by books, his friends. Now, as this new age of technology threatens to overtake his printed empire, Amos must make some very difficult decisions. He’s got to figure out how to adapt his vision to the electronic age, while scaling back his company of devoted employees. He’s also dealing with the aftermath of having survived a stroke, the departure of his wife and the death of his son.
The employees whose fates are in question include four very different people. Deb (played by the driving force of nature that is Lisa Tejero) has been with the company for 12 years. She’s a female Asian-American married to a man who lost his real estate job and is now driving a cab. Jan (the always remarkable and entertaining Jacqueline Williams) is a sassy middle-aged African American who’s worked with Amos since his publishing dreams began and is one of the company’s driving forces. Chris (an eager, articulate Eric Lynch, so excellent in the Goodman’s recent “Buzzer”) has been a family friend since he was a child. Ivy League educated, Chris tries to guide Amos into the electronic age, but finds it difficult. Tim (portrayed with snap and crackle by Tim Decker) is a young white go-getter, married and with a son on the way. Not affected by these possible layoffs, and almost oblivious to his surroundings, is J (a dynamic, unbelievably charismatic and energetic Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a young street kid who works as a janitor in the building. Wired to his peeps, J continually makes non sequitur comments on his bluetooth to his unseen followers. It seems, when push comes to shove, that J is the only one who truly understands and appreciates the new technology surrounding this world that, to Amos, is baffling but intriguing. In many ways, J becomes the new Messiah in this brave new world.
Long monologues, filled with an overabundance of confusing technical jargon, alternate with discussions, arguments and accusations between boss and employee, between J and the others. Sharp questions followed by long, involved answers, long dissertations on family history juxtaposed with staff gossip and outbursts of anger colored by electronic projections fill this almost two hour, intermission-less production. Impressive performances keep the play in constant motion, but the amount of information spewed forth is simply overwhelming. Every generation of theatergoer will undoubtedly find this play a unique experience. For playgoers like Amos, the constant barrage of technical terminology may make their heads explode; for the younger viewer, it will be the presence of such antiquities as a rabbit-ear TV antennae, an abacus and a record player that will baffle and confuse.
This dazzling, dynamic production is made even more astonishing by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stunning, high tech office setting, in collaboration with Shawn Sagady’s ever-changing projections and Keith Parham’s glitzy, flashing lighting. Add to this Karen Perry’s exciting, individualistic and slightly futuristic cutting edge costumes, and you have a visual spectacular that boggles the senses.
The problem is that Regina Taylor’s play, which may have seemed perfectly clear to the playwright when developing it, might’ve fared better this time around (it premiered at New York’s Signature Theatre in 2013) if it had been directed by someone not as closely connected to the piece. Ms. Taylor certainly keeps her production moving; however, much of the play is so jammed with ideas and information and contains such long stretches of puzzling, emotional jargon, a director with a more objective viewpoint might have better clarified some of it.
Most audiences, seeing this piece for the first time, require a assistance from a director who can help us focus and understand more of what we’re seeing and hearing. All that most of the audience will leave the theatre with is a confirmation that technology is, indeed, just as confusing as they originally believed it to be.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 23-June 21 by Goodman Theatre in the Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/stopreset.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.