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Theatre in Review: Say Something Bunny! (UNDO Project Space)

Alison S. M. Kobayashi. Photo: Henry Chan.

One of the oddest and most captivating entertainments of the new season is located far off the beaten path in a rather anonymous building on the 500 block of West 20th Street. You make your way to the third floor -- you need to follow the signs to the performance space or you'll be lost forever in the warren of hallways. On arrival, you add your name to a list and are called, one by one, into a room with a circular conference table and, behind it, a row of seats with music stands. No matter where you are seated, however, Say Something Bunny! will very likely thoroughly engross you.

Alison S. M. Kobayashi, the evening's hostess, enters and produces an old-fashioned wire recorder -- the lumbering predecessor of the tape recorder -- which came into her possession in roundabout fashion, having been purchased from an estate sale some years ago. It came with two recordings: The first contains the after-dinner conversation of a family in Woodmere, Long Island, in the early 1950s, during a farewell party for neighbors who were moving to Philadelphia; the second preserves another family get-together, a year later, probably at Thanksgiving.

These form the core of this unusual experiment in archeology as theatre, and by all rights, they should be dishwater-dull; if you've ever had to watch other people's home movies or videos, you'll know what I mean. Worse, the audio quality is notably poor; the second one was evidently recorded over an episode of the old radio sitcom Our Miss Brooks. But Kobayashi -- who, in addition to considerable charm and intelligence, is possessed of a terrier-like tenacity -- poured over them, producing remarkably complete transcripts that allow us to read along. Audience members seated at the round table are assigned roles from the text -- I was Sidney, the father of the Philadelphia-bound clan, which included the title character -- but do not fear: This is not an exercise in audience participation, but, rather, a device that makes it easier for us to sort out the family's history.

And what a history it is. Combining old-fashioned detective work (sorting through records and archives) and intelligent guesswork, Kobayashi spins a narrative spanning three generations out of these ghostly, half-heard voices. (Really, it's almost like attending a séance.) They were first- and second-generation Americans, neither famous nor wealthy, and yet their story reaches across the twentieth century. Surprisingly, it often touches the entertainment industry, from the heyday of silent film to the anything-goes theatre scene of the early 1970s -- a flop Off Broadway musical called Stag Movie figures prominently -- as well as that decade's burgeoning pornographic film industry. It names on a dizzying array of personalities and cultural touchstones: Eve Arden, Mickey Katz (bandleader and father of Joel Grey), David Merrick, the hit musical Fanny, Clive Barnes (whose pan of Stag Movie is one for the books), and Petula Clark, who makes a kind of cameo appearance, having cowritten a pop song with a member of the clan's younger generation.

At the same time, Kobayashi assembles clues to the events that may have shaped the family's history: early death and remarriage, sibling rivalries, failed romances, and a prodigal son whose career choices eventually separate him from the others. It all builds beautifully to the final capper, revealing the existence of the one person still alive who can speak with authority about what really happened. His comments and corrections are provided after the show, in the lobby, via a slide show, which you are invited to stay and watch. It's a measure of Say Something Bunny!'s power that everyone lingered there, hoping to learn a little more about the family and its fortunes.

Say Something Bunny! was created by Kobayashi in collaboration with Christopher Allen, who is a largely silent presence during the performance. He is credited with "technical design," which presumably includes the flood of evocative projected images and excellent sound from loudspeakers built into the circular table (which was designed and built by Michal Dudek). Kobayashi's warm, sympathetic presence draws the audience in during the early passages, when it's not immediately clear why anyone should be interested in this obscure subject matter. Working together, she and her team have conjured -- almost out of thin air -- a one-of-a-kind performance piece that speaks volumes about families, changing times, and middle-class life in America in its post-World War II heyday. Every detail they unearth evokes a world that existed relatively recently and yet is long, long gone.

Despite some strong reviews, including a notice in the Times, Say Something Bunny! has largely flown under the radar, existing largely on word of mouth. Now you know: It goes on hiatus during August, with new dates in September. It would be a mistake to miss the chance to get in touch with these voices from a lost world. -- David Barbour

(17 July 2017)

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