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What Once We Felt

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mia Barron
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Attention theatregoers enamored of actual feeling: A gaping black hole has appeared at the Duke on 42nd Street, attempting to suck it all away. Ordinarily, news reports - about a galactic cataclysm, or perhaps the tour of Large Hadron Collider: The Musical - would clue you in. But a more direct warning is appropriate this time, given that this void is the latest production of Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3, a play by Ann Marie Healy called What Once We Felt.

So profound and artistic sounding! Rest assured, it is not. It is, in fact, an allegory wrapped in a metaphor swathed in a snoozefest, and deals about as much with the human experience as does arc welding. The only thing it has going for it is the seed of a premise that suggests a trenchant, heartfelt, and unique play could have grown here had Healy concerned herself more with her destination than the vehicle she'd use to get there.

The idea is a simple and fantastic one that comes closer to reality every day. Somewhere in the misty, digital-overrun future, a youngish author named Macy O. Blonsky (Mia Barron) has written what will be the last novel ever published in print.

Your mind is soaring, right? You're picturing Macy fretting endlessly about the historic responsibility she must shoulder, stirring scenes and speeches about the old ways dying forever, the overriding sense that tomorrow has finally arrived - for better or worse. You may wonder how such a story could not be about the people who create and are affected by art.

That, alas, is not even close to what Healy has written. Instead, she's made everything and everyone a symbol, given them all oh-so-cute names, and flooded the proceedings with such suffocating ambiguity that she's never able to convince you even for a second that she's aware - or interested in - what it all specifically means.

Healy's world is more than slightly dystopian. There seem to be no men, for one thing. Perhaps in accordance with that, women don't "have" babies, they "download" them - and each woman, assuming she's the right kind of woman, only gets one. Everyone is going through something called The Transition. And perhaps in accordance with that, society is divided into three groups of people: Tradepacks, Keepers, and the RSS.

What does any of this have to do with Macy's book (which, by the way, is titled Terror's Peon)? As near as I can tell, because it's about a Tradepack it inspires members of that class and their sympathizers, and fuels hatred among those who want them destroyed. Macy's editor, Claire Monsoon (Opal Alladin), who's too busy editing to ever read, is a secret Tradepack who needs Macy's help to have a child; her assistant, Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake), is Macy's line editor and fascinated by the book's hidden messages and rebellion-fomenting content.

But neither the characters nor the plotline develop, because they're not truly characters or a plotline. They're ham-fisted avatars of Healy's message of the power of books - not the written word, but physical books. The stomped-on underclass are the Tradepacks, short for "trade paperbacks" (as is made clear in the final scene), and the oppressors are the RSS, exactly the same as the present-day acronym for "Really Simple Syndication," which can deliver web content directly to your local computer the instant it's created or changed.

If Healy expected us to relate to any of this in any other way, she'd explain something, sometime. She doesn't bother. The central figure of Macy's novel is apparently named "Your Tradepack Character." The closest we get to a description of the RSS are that they're lesbians who live with goats in the mountains (no, seriously). Healy can't be troubled to drop hints about what The Transition is supposed to be. And Tradepacks are go-to lepers she can pull out whenever she needs to say something about the way they're being mistreated, usually by way of their even-further-in-the-future representative, Violet (Ronete Levenson), who apparently is the last of that breed, yet different from all the others. For no reason, stated or implied.

Ellen Parker and Mia Barron.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

As both a script and a production, What Once We Felt is aggressively lazy from start to finish. It barely seems like it's been edited - Healy repeats certain words and lines endlessly within dialogue, forcing them to take three times longer than they should to say nothing. There's indifferent direction from Ken Rus Schmoll, and a sleekly clunky set from Kris Stone that resembles a blue vinyl skateboard park. The performances likewise are pitiable: Barron is always half a breath away from utter hysterics, but Ellen Parker's hamming it up as Macy's agent and Lynn Hawley understated to the point of catatonia as a put-upon real-world Tradepack aren't much better; Alladin and Blake make valiant efforts, but can't grasp their roles' frictionless surfaces.

Who can blame them? Like this past spring's production of Stunning, Healy's play doesn't readily forward LCT3's mission of connecting younger artists with younger audiences in the realm of fresh ideas. For how many young people today - raised on the Internet, iPods, and TiVo - is the death of paper books a crippling concern? And how many will respond to a play so obviously manipulative that despite pretending to be forward-thinking, it's really caked in dust?

What Once We Felt exists out of time, like a "Kitchen of Tomorrow" TV special from the 1950s that demonstrated food-preparation innovations for which we're still waiting today. If Healy is really interested in addressing issues of modern relevance, she'd be better off saying something - anything - about who we are, how we live, and what it all means. Those are topics that will be still be churning long after the digital revolution we're now entering has itself transitioned into whatever lies beyond.

What Once We Felt
Through November 22
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Duke On 42nd Street

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