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stop. reset.

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

stop. reset.
Carl Lumbly with Ismael Cruz Córdova
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Where do you end and the Internet begin? Though the answer to this question may, at first, seem fairly clear-cut, spend enough time at Regina Taylor’s new play stop. reset., which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, and you may wonder. This cluttered but compelling play posits a world very much like ours, only considerably more so: one in which the identity that personally defines you has become so intertwined with the technology you use that it’s no longer possible to separate activities, interests, or even opinions. Can you exist in isolation from everyone and everything else today? More important: Do you want to?

As advancements such as smartphones, Siri, and the cloud have invaded our lives to an increasingly personal extent, these questions have been asked time and time again. But rarely have even potential answers come with the brio that accompanies them in this rendition. As both writer and director, Taylor has executed a total, all-encompassing vision of how we got here, and how we may be able to get out — complete with thorough explorations of what we’ll gain and lose if we try. She doesn’t reach any firm conclusions — how can anyone? — but her treatment manages to be both deeply serious and firmly entertaining, without ever condescending.

Not that it rings as much of an epic at first. True, the walls of Neil Patel’s disjointed office set are projected (by Shawn Sagady) with excerpts from the dictionary and quotes from revolutionary writers such as Ralph Ellison, but at the beginning we seem to be in an uncomfortably normal place. The time is now and the place is the penthouse headquarters of Alexander Ames Chicago Black Book Publisher, a pioneering voice in the African-American press that’s been around for 41 years but may not survive much longer. Changing tastes and methods of consumption forced Ames (Carl Lumbly) to sell the business to a larger concern, and though it’s still a subsidiary, the new owners have insisted that someone on the four-person staff must be let go if operations are to continue.

But who can Ames do without? Deb (Michi Barall), the committed visionary who proposes creating a new Twitter-based literary form? The white Tim (Donald Sage Mackay), who’s a staunch, useful realist, but whose views on responsibility and race relations may be a few decades out of date? Jan (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the sole black woman on the staff, and the only one of the originally hired employees remaining? Or Chris (Teagle F. Bougere), a Harvard-educated black man whose father was best friends with Ames, but whose ideas (which include moving to Detroit and dropping the word “Black” from the company name) may be a little too progressive?

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Teagle F. Bougere, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Donald Sage Mackay, and Michi Barall.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As they’re all trapped in the office one raging winter, while six-foot walls of snow form outside, the recriminations and scheming keep things inside at a boiling pitch. One person is beyond all that — and pretty much everything else: J (Ismael Cruz Córdova), the 19-year-old janitor who’s locked in his own little realm of iPods and constant connectivity, forever speaking to people no one else can see but linked in to knowledge no one else can imagine. To Ames, who values books’ tactile quality and permanence — he fears that a loss of physical books will eventually mean the loss of history and fact — it’s an incomprehensible existence, but one he recognizes as being, for better or worse, the way things are headed.

The slow-smolder battle that rages between the old-fashioned (Ames), the fresh (J), and the undecideds (everyone else) is where stop. reset. builds its steam. Lumbly’s stiff-backed, yet arrestingly innocent, performance anchors the action, but Córdova’s light-footed free-spiritedness contrasts with it beautifully, and leaves the other cast members to do solid work as the mewling bystanders. And when the collisions occur, they pack all the force they must for six people whose very livelihood is on the line.

Taylor soars as director here, flipping fluidly between locations and feelings, and probing with her piercing staging (and a gradually greater reliance on those fever-dream projections of words and faces, and Lap Chi Chu’s lights) the disconnectedness of spirit that is really being debated. But as the playwright, Tylor never fully bridges the gap between the starker realism of the earliest scenes and the frenzied experimentation of those that come later. The more they merge in fact, the less it feels like they should: Ames’s linking the march of time to the death of his son, whose skeleton is composed (by a hilariously confused J) of things like records and eight-track tapes, works well; the other employees spending so much time trying to impose on order on something everyone knows is irredeemably chaotic plays like wasted time.

The world is also a little too recognizable for all the games Taylor wants to play. Technology becomes a bit too wondrous as events proceed, and its effects far too convenient to serve as a either a thoroughly redeemable threat or redeemer. We move from the mundane to the magical at an unconvincing clip, and as the final few scenes rely heavily on our acceptance of this, they come across as more darkly desperate than Taylor likely intended. The lesson is that evolution of this sort is concretely neither good nor bad, but slightly too much digging is required to get there.

stop. reset., however, works well when viewed from further back, and is as engaging a meditation on this subject as I’ve seen in a long time. Even when Taylor is trying too hard to make her points, and losing her perspective beneath the excess, you know you’re experiencing a thoughtful expression of a problem that afflicts all of us every day. The only solution Taylor proposes — balance — is neither an original nor an unexpected one, though it is for now perhaps the best we can do. If Taylor’s play is the best we can currently do in examining this issue artistically, that’s gratifying in itself provided it’s not where we — or society — stop.


stop. reset.
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.signaturetheatre.org