Regina Taylor's rather bewildering play derides technology while her production celebrates it.
Regina Taylor seems like she might get along famously with Jonathan Franzen. Franzen, who seems to come along with a new 5,000-word essay every couple of years assailing the ills of modern technology, has much in curmudgeonly common with stop. reset.'s Alexander Ames (Eugene Lee), the old-school, titular head of Alexander Ames Chicago Black Books Publisher. (Think John H. Johnson if he put out hardcovers instead of Ebony and Jet.) Ames, facing a declining book industry and the necessity of laying off one of his small, loyal staff, derides “smartass phones” and demonstrates the futility of Siri by asking her to bring him his paper and a cup of coffee. Gosh darn it, wasn’t it better when we all just had secretaries?
Taylor introduces a magical-realist, Afrofuturist blip in the form of J (Edgar Sanchez), a teenage janitor who might be visiting from 500 years in the future via virtual reality or might be some kind of trickster spirit (things get confusing fast), and half-heartedly tries to open Ames’s mind to tech while Ames retells the story of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Meanwhile, his employees (Lisa Tejero, Eric Lynch, Tim Decker and Jacqueline Williams, appealing actors playing underwritten characters) squabble over who should get let go as familiar race and gender fault lines become clear.
Despite her apparent antipathy to our hyperconnected world, Taylor’s production betrays mixed feelings; in lieu of a physical playbill, preshow projections give us a URL to punch into our phones for a program, and more thought seems to have gone into Shawn Sagady’s busy video designs, on a dozen screens around the stage and projected on the stage itself, than into crafting a coherent story. This comes two years after the play’s premiere at New York’s Signature Theatre Company, which was also directed by Taylor and was met with responses largely like mine, which apparently gave her no impulse to reset. The best I can say is that stop. reset. is a heartfelt hot mess.
Goodman Theatre. Written and directed by Regina Taylor. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.