Love in the Time of Corona on FreeForm. A lesson for theater?

There is one moment in particular that struck me in “Love in the Time of Corona,” the first TV series made about, and during, the pandemic, co-produced and co-starring “Hamilton” Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr.
The four-episode series, which debuted last week on FreeForm, tells four, somewhat overlapping stories of people in quarantine. In one of these stories, a gay man and his female roommate,Oscar and Elle (Tommy Dorfman and Rainey Qualley) use apps to set up video dates for each other. Oscar winds up talking via laptop screen with Sean (Jordan Gavaris.)
They jokingly exchange “Queerantine pick-up lines”

“If COVID doesn’t take you out, can I?”

“Are you an N95a? Because I really want you on my face”

There are more such jokes — some naughtier, some dopier — and with each, they giggle, each holding his hand over his mouth as if acknowledging how cringe-worthy they’re being. It felt spot-on to me, exactly how these characters would be getting to know one another. There are a few other such moments throughtout the show, including a subtle incorporation of Black Lives Matter, and they made me think: What theater companies have produced virtual plays in the last few months that capture the way we are living during this deeply weird time-out?

There have been a few. One that comes immediately to mind is “What Do We Need to Talk About?” Richard Nelson’s first Apple Family play on Zoom, though the characters in that play represent a more limited demographic.

Yet, if I’m being honest,I have to admit that I enjoyed the TV series more than most of the Zoom plays I’ve been seeing.

Now, nobody is likely to compare “Love in the Time of Corona” favorably to the novel that obviously inspired the title, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” It’s meant to be uplifting, so the show is full of familiar conflicts with TV-quick resolutions. There are scenes that feel copied from Hallmark specials or music videos or even television commercials — literally; Adam (Emilio Garcia-Sanchez) takes an outdoor shower while his upstairs neighbors, Oscar and Elle, ogle, which reminded me of a specific soda commercial.

But the TV series offers something that’s missing from most of the virtual plays I’ve been seeing — a savvy understanding of the way we look at screens. Perhaps I too should be holding my hand in front of my face in embarrassment, but I’ve been conditioned since childhood to have expectations of a story being told on a screen that differ from that of one on a stage.

Yes, the creative team of the FreeForm series probably had more money than the average struggling theater company. But I doubt that’s the full explanation.
In the making-of video below, they talk about how they figured out ways to work around the lock-down. They had a much smaller crew; creator Joanna Johnson (best-known for creating “The Fosters”) worked with a crew of six instead of 100; the cast doubled as crew members, and did their own hair and makeup, supplied their own props, etc.
The actors only performed in person with those they were already sharing the quarantine, the creative team creating a script compatible with their real-life setup. Odom and his wife Nicolette Robinson portrayed married couple James and Sade, who are debating whether to take this time to have a second child (while we hear their first child in another room, who may indeed be the actual couple’s actual toddler.) A second story involves Paul who is separated from his wife Sarah but they have been keeping it from their Sophia; the three characters are portrayed by Gil Bellows, his (not separated) wife Rya Kihlstedt and their daughter Ava Bellows.
There are other actors attached to each of the four stories, though, that are not in the same room; they are connected only via video. James’ mother Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell) sits down for dinner each night with her husband Charles (Charles Robinson), via video; he is in a nursing home.

All of the video interactions — Nanda with her husband, Sade with her sister, Oscar with Sean, and more — felt part of the story…restrictions facing the characters. I was not made constantly aware of the enforced limitations of the show, as I am often with virtual play readings. Some of it seemed simply a matter of occasionally changing the camera angles.

Is there a lesson here for theater makers? Maybe Leslie Odom Jr. can advise.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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