Mary-Louise Parker introduces us to the second edition of The Homebound Project, an hour-long online collection of 11 new short plays, by explaining that the theme this time is “sustenance,” and lists “the many ways we sustain and fortify ourselves…. shelter, our vocations, charity, activism, and also food.”
She doesn’t mention the arts.
And, honestly, this second batch of plays in the series, which launched on Wednesday and is available through Sunday, didn’t generally provide as much sustenance for me as the first edition. In place of the first edition’s frequent sense of playfulness, as well as relatively straightforward stories of connection and longing, there are darker and less accessible works reminiscent of the spare and despairing plays of Samuel Beckett.
I’m thinking in particular of two plays – “Comfort Food” by Anne Washburn, and “Here Is Good” by Ngozi Anyanwu – in which the performers (Ngozi Anyanwu and Hari Nef, respectively) rant darkly (in the dark.) But there is also Will Arbery’s “Notes Toward Godliness,” where Nicholas Braun portrays a man who boasts of cutting off all contact with his parents – which he explains insanely will help him reach toward godliness — but his face betrays the self-sabotage of his mission. And in Sarah DeLappe’s “Gossip,” Taylor Schilling portrays a woman who’s asked at a party about a man named Roger, and, after explaining their long-ago relationship and the complications of his personality and her attraction to it, finds out some news about him. We don’t hear what the news is, but we can tell from her face that it depresses her, even while she says “That’s nice.” (Is it that he’s getting married?)
Some of the plays in this collection are neither absurdist nor depressing. But even if they were, it’s hard for me to grasp why I didn’t feel generally as engaged in these plays as the equally avant-garde Mad Forest, or the similarly sad The Sentinels, a play about 9/11 widows – both of which I also saw this week, and raved about.
It could be that I may be tiring of these group efforts; I’ve wondered whether they might be more beneficial to the artists (and the charitable cause for which they are raising funds) than to the audience. But perhaps there is a better clue hidden in the two plays from The Homebound Project second edition that did win me over.
At first blush, they couldn’t seem more different from one another.
In “These Hands,” by Loy A. Webb, Kimberly Hebert Gregory portrays a nurse named Tracee who is telling us a story that turns out to be a simple parable about going to the “Humanity Gala,” with each guest asked for a gift. The nurse feels outshone by one guest’s gift of intelligence, another’s gift of beauty until she realizes she has the gift of her hands – hands that have taken care of people over many years.
In “Is This A Play Yet,” by Marco Ramirez, Utkarsh Ambudkar begins by declaring “ I’d love to be watching a bad play right now” and then elaborates on the different kinds of bad plays, such as “where someone wearing a leotard represents Death,” and “the type of play with a ‘twist’ ending.” But, he says in his own twist, “instead here I am, memorizing lines for a part that doesn’t exist….Now I’m in that painfully boring play.”
“These Hands” feel straightforwardly sentimental while “Is This A Play Yet” could come off as comically cynical. But the first is made lively and credible by a script and a performance that presents a particular, grounded character. And all throughout the second, Ambudkar, while giving off a Bill Murray deadpan vibe, holds a silent infant on his shoulder.
They both felt as if they were speaking to the moment, or maybe, more to the point, to my mood at the moment.
List of plays in Homebound Project, second edition
Comfort Food by Anne Washburn
performed by Ngozi Anyanwu
Worms by Lily Houghton
performed by Betty Gilpin
Notes Towards Godliness by Will Arbery
performed by Nicholas Braun
Directed by Danya Taymor
Zoom on Toast by Brittany K. Allen
performed by Christopher Oscar Pena
The Prophet Cassandra Sees a Different Future by Bryna Turner
performed by Mary Louise Parker
These Hands by Loy A. Webb
performed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory
Directed by Jenna Worsham
by Sarah DeLappe
performed by Taylor Schilling
Directed by Jenna Worsham
You Best Believe
by David Zheng
performed by Babak Tafti
Directed by Taylor Reynolds
HERE IS GOOD
by Ngozi Anyanwu
performed by Hari Nef
Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin
Is This a Play Yet
by Marco Ramirez
performed by Utkarsh Ambudkar
by Adam Bock
performed by Zachary Quinto
Directed by Trip Cullman