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Theatre in Review: House Plant (Next Door at NYTW)

Caption: Molly Bernard, Ugo Chukwu. Photo: Elke Young.

If House Plant is any indication, it appears that the more our young playwrights strive to strike contemporary stances, the more they end up reverting to the retro. The situations and characters in Sarah Einspanier's play are very 2020 -- the plot involves blogs, faked videos, texting, and other ephemera of the present day - but, for all its modern appurtenances, it's not too different from some of the frothier and frailer comedies of yesteryear. There is one big difference, however: Given the characters' temperaments and orientations, romance -- indeed, any real emotional engagement -- is off the table. And without that, what have you got?

Well, you've got House Plant, a sex comedy without any sex, an odd-couple pairing in which a couple of poorly matched temperaments noodle around a New York apartment for ninety minutes or so. It's not as bad as it sounds, thanks to an occasional funny line and a cast that is far better than the script. But this is a remarkably aimless exercise, its only apparent subject being the lack of one.

The apartment is occupied by June and Max, neither of whom, as the play begins, is likely to amount to anything. She works as an online consultant for a food delivery service, taking customer complaints about missing ingredients and dispensing cooking tips. He writes hold music for various businesses -- or, rather, he aspires to. In one of many bits that must have sounded funnier in theory, we see him struggling to come up with the right theme for a potential client.

Egged on by her deadpan friend, Chloe, June breaks off the relationship and hotfoots it to the West Coast, where she instantly -- and I mean the next morning, before she even gets off the plane -- gets cast on a steamy medicine-themed video series along the lines of Grey's Anatomy. (This happens despite her utter lack of show business experience -- another apparently riotous development.) The despondent Max discovers, to his horror, that Chloe -- whom he describes as "cool queer open punk poly edgy pan free fucking desperate depressed alone crazy as shit" -- has moved in.

At first, sniping is the order of the day, but gradually Chloe and Max bond over their personal projects. Chloe makes high-concept art videos; her current effort involves a peach pit being inserted into someone's anus, shot in extreme closeup. "I'm interested in the banality of the body, taking hyper-sexualized body parts, or bodily acts, and portraying them the way you might a snail crawling in and out of a frame." She also amuses herself by responding in aphorisms to June's online customers: A complaint about a missing ingredient might get a response like "Every cloud has a silver lining." Max, seemingly grasping at straws, decides he can get June back by becoming a mountain climber; he starts a blog, which draws a total of eighty-six followers. Later, when he and Chloe have gotten chummy, they collaborate on a video detailing his entirely fictional effort. How fictional? They shoot it, under the crudest possible circumstances, in the living room.

Meanwhile, the action occasionally shifts to spoofy scenes from June's clearly terrible series, to which Chloe and Max quickly become addicted. Also, seated on the second level of the set is a musician who doubles as Agnes, Chloe's sometime girlfriend, a member of a band called Concave Fire. She also triggers a cascade of sound of effects, many of which suggest the character's inner thoughts. Other episodes include a to-do about nude modeling and a disaster, while installing an air conditioner, that nearly unmans Max. All of the play's humor is of a peculiarly silly, self-adoring sort; Einspanier specializes in airy fancies that might amuse in an 800-word magazine piece. Listening to Chloe and Max pursue one giggly notion after another quickly becomes tedious.

Nevertheless, Molly Bernard brings a surprising sense of commitment to the role of Chloe, whether explaining that romantic love is a toxic byproduct of capitalism or admitting that her real dream is to have brunch at a touristy restaurant that sounds suspiciously like the old Tavern on the Green. As Max, Ugo Chukwu is loaded with good cheer and personal magnetism, but he is allowed (or perhaps forced) to resort to sitcom mannerisms in an attempt at landing laughs. I guess the casting of Emma Ramos as June is a bit of an inside joke, since she has been a recurring character on the NBC series New Amsterdam; she doesn't have much to do here, except for a tiresome breakup scene with Max. The musician, Deepali Gupta, plays the violin, delivers Agnes' lines, and provides all sorts of sound effects, including pop music, thunder, a flushing toilet, voicemail messages, and some distracting skips and scratches. John Gasper is the sound designer.

Meredith Ries' apartment set is -- purposely, I guess -- almost free of detail, but Cha See's lighting has some built-in surprises, including red-and-blue police lights and cunningly hidden LED tape. Haydee Zelideth's costumes are all right, although this is the kind of play that tells you June has gone Hollywood by fitting her out with big, dark sunglasses and a baseball cap that says "LA." The director, Jaki Bradley, has imposed a certain brittle style on the actors, an approach that makes sense, even if it can't do anything about the tiresome final fifteen or twenty minutes.

And whither the title? There is a house plant on the set -- it's named after June -- but it doesn't get much attention until the end, when it gets the closing monologue. And, you know, it is about as interesting as any of the humans onstage. --David Barbour

(7 February 2020)

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