Thursday, September 5, 2019

63 (2019-2020): Review: TECH SUPPORT (seen August 29, 2019)

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"All Calls Will Be Monitored"

If you’re that rare individual who never had to call a tech support helpline to fix some problem—my own calls usually have been about computer, purchasing, or financial issues—then you probably won’t appreciate the mildly satirical, SNL-like opening scene of Tech Support, a mediocre time-traveling comedy written and directed by Debra Whitfield in the intimate Theater C at 59E59. 
Margot White. All photos: Russ Rowland.
In the scene, set in the spring of 2020, Pamela Stark (Margot White), an attractive, 40-year-old, New York City dealer in antique books, is on her landline struggling to resolve a wireless printer problem. At the same time, she's trying to figure out how to operate her new cappuccino machine. Add to that some sassy feedback from Siri, as well as well as a phone message she's leaving being cut short for lack of time at the other end.

A nervous wreck, not only because of her technical difficulties but because her husband has served her with divorce papers, Pamela is on the verge of losing it, especially when she learns she’s number 267 on the list waiting for a live representative. Yes, you’re thinking, been there, done that. But things soon shift and, for the most part, leave the tech satire high and dry.

When, to Pam’s delighted surprise, someone finally gets on the line, he has an East-Indian accent but bears the decidedly non-East Indian name of Chip, a mildly amusing reminder of the location of call centers that want us to feel like we're talking to fellow Americans, not folks in Delhi. This leads to an incipient phone relationship between the desperate Pam and the professionally reserved Chip that soon, for no reason other than the playwright's whim, turns into a nightmare when a female voice instructs Pam to select one of the numbers being recited.

Although she doesn't realize it at first, these are actually specific years, so, presto, Pamela is whisked back in time to the same lower Manhattan apartment in 1919. Again, it’s not a fantasy, electric shock, a spider's bite, or the result of drugs or a knock on the head. It's really happening.
Margot White, Mark Lotito. 
The place Pamela lives in, she discovers, was Mrs. Blackwell’s boarding house 100 years ago. What today is her studio apartment was in 1919 a common room occupied by two young suffragettes, Maisie (Leanne Carrrera) and Grace (Laurel Friedman), a handsome, young man named Chip (Ryan Avalos), and the widowed, middle-aged proprietor, Charlie (Mark Lotito). Bewildered, Pam keeps responding with her 2020 locutions, which meet with gentle bemusement. Even her stylish black pants suit (soon replaced by a properly dignified 1919 ensemble) raises barely a hair on anyone’s eyebrows.

The premise: shifting Pam around in time, from 1919, to 1946, to 1977 (judging from hints like “Stayin’ Alive” and the ERA amendment). Oddly, we never revisit 2020, The goal: to satirize changing fashions, language, mores, and the onslaught of progress in the form of advances in modern appliances. We learn that people before us were also forced to confront new technology in their daily lives. It's not a new idea but it has potential for comic treatment.
Margot White, Leanne Cabrera. 
The devices covered are not only today’s, like wireless printers, coffee machines, and cell phones, but minor ones from back in the day, like the Wireless Vac-u-ette (an actual non-electric vacuum cleaner), electric pop-up toaster (invented in 1919), and Tupperware. The script also seeks laughs by implying that the Coca-Cola of 1919 had a kick in it, although explains that whatever traces Coke had of cocaine by then were too tiny to have any discernible effect.
Margot White, Mark Lotito, Leanne Cabrera, Ryan Avalos, Laurel Friedman.
As suggested by the presence of such things as suffragettes, a pregnant woman who helps introduce the (unnamed) subject of abortion, and ERA activists, we note that a principal concern is the rise of feminism and its demands.

Whitfield’s ambitious attempt has the potential to be a funny, meaningful look at the difficulties of coping with progress. But, unlike Mark Twain’s novel on a roughly similar subject, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the playwright is unable to milk the comedy for meaningful laughs. Instead, she gets lost in the weeds of Pam’s relationships with the people she meets along her never-explained time travels, including an unconvincing romance with one of the Chips she befriends—much younger than her—whose name inspires her with the idea for a certain little computer invention. Get it?   
Ryan Avalos, Leanne Cabrera.
Tech Support is clumsily directed and inadequately designed. Natalie Taylor Hart’s unattractive apartment set—its upper border decorated with panels resembling computer circuitry—serves for both exteriors and interiors, although which is which is sometimes hard to discern. The actors themselves shift the furniture, one item being a bed that looks about as big as the bucket seat of a car with its back pulled down. 

Elliott Forrest's video projections of city views, as well as hyperkinetic effects to reflect time shifts, add a touch of visual interest, and Deborah Constantine's lighting is serviceable. Some of Jackie O’Donnell’s costumes are sufficiently period-correct, others--especially the men's--are not. You may also wonder why, when the action shifts to 1946 and Pam is still wearing her floor-length, 1919 outfit, no one seems to notice.
Margot White, Ryan Avalos.
Margot White struggles to make Pamela cutely but smartly appealing. She lacks the kind of comic timing and nuance required and too often resorts to overacting, sometimes emitting a self-conscious chuckle to express the character’s confusion. Admittedly, the role is a challenge that would probably defeat anyone playing it. 

For example, Pamela is highly educated but, even after she realizes her dilemma, fails to use it to her advantage. Thus, instead of knowing better, she keeps using 2020 references that no one understands. And, rather than exploiting her predicament by using her latter-day knowledge (like the hero in Twain's novel)—except when showing someone how to operate a toaster or open a Tupperware container—she just goes with the flow, a victim rather than a conqueror of circumstance.  

Tech Support is in need of tech support, even if it means being number 267 on the list.

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 21