Exquisitely directed and designed, and responsively acted, An Undeveloped Sound is, nonetheless, thematically repetitive and therefor dull.
Jonathon Young has set his new script in a call centre located in a crumbling, repurposed commercial outlet near an ocean. In my mind, it was in an abandoned strip mall.
There, four characters stonewall angry callers who have invested in a development. The callers want to know what’s happening with their units and when they’ll be able to move in. The employees cheerfully reassure the callers that they can see the investors’ non-existent units from where they’re sitting and, when the questioning gets insistent, they put the callers on hold.
So the set-up is about a false narrative — and that quickly expands into a larger thematic statement about the fallibility of all narratives, all ways of understanding, of attempting to connect. A newcomer named Heidi is seducing a hapless worker named Wade, but is her interest sincere or malign? Bell, once the star spokesperson for the project, desperately clings to the performance of a hope she no longer feels. A parent-child relationship has fallen apart. One’s fellow workers are not to be trusted. Language itself is suspect, a poor approximation of meaning. And, underlying all of this is a critique of the manipulativeness of capitalism.
That’s a lot and, at the same time, it’s only one idea with variations — and the script’s relationship to those variations is relentlessly nihilistic. In this interview in Stir, writer and director Young offers: “I would say the internal forces of futility and hope are the central tension of the piece, driving it forward.” But there’s virtually no hope in An Undeveloped Sound— at least as I experienced it — so there’s not much to drive it forward.
In the Stir interview, Young also says, “Nothing develops without that desire to achieve something, and then there’s the Mephistophelean force of it always being snatched and dissolving.” But, in An Undeveloped Sound, the generative power of striving is so muted it might as well be silent. (I could see that individual characters had hope, but the tone of the piece told me they were doomed.)
An Undeveloped Sound begs comparison to early existentialist plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godotand Endgame, but, in their language and conception, those works are elegantly minimalistic. In comparison, An Undeveloped Sound is rambling and logorrheic.
At the same time, there’s an undeniable intelligence and artistic integrity to the project.
The actors (Amy Rutherford as Heidi, Andrew McNee as Wade, Laara Sadiq as Bell, and Ryan Beil as Lucian, the office manager) deliver attentive, detailed characterizations. Emotionally, Sadiq digs deep, and McNee’s Wade is touchingly innocent, baffled, and funny.
Movement director Natalie LeFebvre Gnam has given the cast fabulous little bits of choreography, sometimes for their whole bodies, sometimes just for their hands, which, desperately — and often wittily — attempt a kind of sign language.
Loscil’s musical composition comes in lush waves that underscore emotional moments without overwhelming them. The same can be said of Sophie Tang’s lighting, which even creates aesthetic pleasure using office strip lights.
Camilla Coo’s striking set features a giant, blank billboard. It looks like the kind that used to have those rotating slats. Here, the slats shimmer, evoking the landscape, the ocean, and the characters’ inner turbulence.
As the director, Young brought all of this together and he deserves huge credit for that.
But, even with all this high-level achievement, I was looking for a way out of this evening well before it ended.
AN UNDEVELOPED SOUND written and directed by Jonathon Young. An Electric Company production at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre as part of the PuSh Festival. Running until February 11. Tickets
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