Book Review: The 24 Hour Plays’ Viral Monologues. Is this Pandemic Literature?

Reading these monologues from the early days of COVID-19, many of which I had watched online, made me think of the way Trump impersonator Adam Baldwin on Saturday Night Live recently spoofed the president’s statement that “we’re rounding the corner” on the pandemic: “We’re doing terrific, we’re rounding the corner. In fact, we’ve rounded so many corners we’ve gone all the way around the block and we’re back where we started in March.”
It was in March that the 25-year-old theater company 24 Hour Plays launched its series Viral Monologues, presenting the first batch of five-minute plays on its Instagram account on March 17, just five days after Broadway was shut down.
They’ve delivered a new batch of about a dozen original monologues nearly every Tuesday since, making 24 Hour Plays one of the three earliest and most consistent sources of legitimate online theater created during the pandemic. Unlike the other two — Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s thrice weekly Plays in the House (part of their daily Stars in the House), and Play-PerView – the plays in Viral Monologues are all new original works. (A fourth series, MCC’s LiveLabs, also presents original works, but they have been less consistent, producing a total of four original plays in May and June, with newly announced plans to resume in December, offering about one new 45-minute play a month.)
Yet, out of the hundreds of Viral Monologues produced, the 54 scripts that editor Howard Sherman has collected in The 24 Hour Plays Viral Monologues: New Monologues Created During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Methuen Drama, 158 pages) are all from within that first month.
Was there any artistic point in limiting the selection to the earliest monologues? Is it history now? Given the current surge in COVID cases, does the collection capture a moment of shock, fear and uncertainty that differs from the one in which we’re still living? And given the speed with which they were produced, are they really worth reading as well as watching?
My answer to these questions is a qualified yes.
A number of the plays reveal that, yes, things actually have changed a bit over the last few months. : In Kathleen Hale’s “A Little About Me,” Genny leaves a video for her new roommate from whom she’s social distancing, staying isolated in her own room: “There’s no more hand sanitizer, anywhere, but I put a bucket of vodka on the table, so just feel free to dip a clean sock in there, and go to town.” (I haven’t seen a bottle of Purell for a while, but there are plenty of dedicated alternatives available that you can’t drink.)
Other aspects of life have remained much the same — such as the free-floating dread and the stress — so several monologues in the book remain effective in dramatizing varying ways this anxiety and uncertainty were (and are) affecting people. In Sarah Gancher’s touching “Toilet Paper Kayak,” one of the few two-character plays (performed online by married couple Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker), Mark tries to convince Deb to stay home, and both assume they’ll die from the virus. In Aaron W. Levy’s “Punch Card Blues” (performed by Daniel K. Isaac) Daniel tells us of the over-the-top fight he got into with North Hollywood Poke because they wouldn’t accept his 10-punched loyalty card and give him a free order. The humor and craziness is emphasized by his wearing a panda costume because his young daughter gets upset if he takes it off. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s chilling “Digging to China,” a 70-year-old woman(originally performed by Marylouise Burke), is attempting to have a video chat with her husband, who went out for a supply run three weeks ago, and hasn’t returned, just one of the ominous and inexplicable developments in the world around he

Still, the narrow time-frame seems a missed opportunity — and I suspect the entire reason for that decision comes from a desire to publish the scripts in book form as quickly as possible. (If true, I don’t understand why it was deemed important to rush to publication. Branding?  Relevance? An assumption that the pandemic would end soon?) The result is the omission of such gems as any of the videos in the special themed evening on COVID and Incarceration. Worse, what is included is not just uneven; it is also unfocused. There are plenty of the monologues that have no direct connection to the times we’re living in.

A few of these do attempt relevance before veering into allusive and elusive territory or  unmoored comic schtick . In Jesse Eisenberg’s “an Immodest Proposal,” the actor Richard Kind (portrayed in performance by Richard Kind) tells us: “Like a lot of people, I’ve spent this week indoors, by myself, just contemplating things.” And then he confesses his time alone has inspired a bold change in his life: He wants to play a gentile. He offers three tiny, hilarious audition scenes to prove he can do it, and then ends with “I’ll work for free, on any project, in any location. I just don’t work Friday nights and all day Saturday….”

In what feels like a way to excuse the randomness, the publisher is marketing the book as “Audition Speeches.” Some of the monologues could surely work as audition material, but some are manifestly too elaborate; they certainly weren’t chosen with this purpose as the priority.

The problem I have with “Viral Monologues” the book is much the same problem I developed with Viral Monologues the videos.  I was hugely enthusiastic when they began.  I’m less committed now, perhaps experiencing a form of Instagram fatigue, perhaps overwhelmed by 24 Hours’ unaltered process of quick-hit, large batch deliveries.   I do still occasionally sift through the new “rounds” as they’re called, selectively, with the faith that patience will be rewarded. That may be a good way to approach the book. Among the rewards in the book:

Lydia Diamond’s “Face timing 101,” in which a woman (originally performed by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is trying to teach her mother how to use Facetime

Eric Bogosian’s “Injustice,” where a selfish Hollywood writer/director (originally performed by Clark Gregg) tries to pretend that he needs to have his movie made as an act of solidarity with the suffering masses

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “Invincible,” based on an interview with a real nurse — which was eventually folded into their full-length play at the Public, “The Line.”

I’ve long thought of plays as two art forms – as living performances and as literature. Ideally, I’ve always thought, the best plays are both. “Viral Monologues” tests this belief. Some of the monologues passed this test for me.

The book should at least provide incentive to explore the Viral Monologue videos,  many of which remain online.

 

Author: New York Theaterh

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

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