By Jonathan Mandell
In “Addressless,” the audience helps three characters navigate the tricky path to getting an affordable apartment in New York City. This is a daunting challenge for anyone. But it’s a dangerous game – a series of life-or-death choices — for Josie, Wallace and Louis, who have no permanent address.
We’re asked to vote on whether Josie (Bianca Norwood), a 19-year-old runaway from an abusive family who’s sleeping on a park bench, should accept $100 from a man who says he’s a photographer and wants to do her portrait in his studio. Should she tell an old classmate she happens to run into about her predicament in hopes of getting invited to couch surf, or lie to protect her dignity?
Should Wallace (Shams DaBaron), who’s been working at a home health aide, complain to his agency when his client fires him after she discovers he’s homeless, and then gives him a final paycheck that’s less than he’s earned? Or will that just endanger his chance of getting another job?
Should Louis (Joey Auzenne), a military veteran dishonorably discharged for self-medicating a herniated disc, continue to stay at the homeless shelter where he was attacked by another resident?
“Addressless,” which Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is presenting through February 13, turns the effort to escape homelessness into a literal game – or, to say it fancy, a work of interactive virtual theater. It is at its best when the actors play out scenes that help us understand the real-life conundrums, often involving complicated interactions with predators, employers and city agencies. (The scenes play out in what looks like a photographer’s studio, not on Zoom.) Hope Beaver, who portrays a social worker (and is a social worker, at Henry Street Settlement) as well as the narrator and the “gamemaster,” drives home the lessons of the individual scenes by supplying the larger context. For every 100 low-income households searching for a place to live, she tells us at one point, there are only 37 low-income homes.
But “Addressless” also involves elaborate gameplay, first developed by director Martin Boross in his native Hungary, and adapted to this city by New York playwright Jonathan Payne, who is also a social worker. The premise: Each of the three characters (they’re actually referred to as “avatars” although these are live actors) has been invited for an interview to determine whether they will be given an apartment rent-free for a year in a new housing development on the Lower East Side. But the interview is not happening for another three months, and they have to provide first and last month’s rent, which will be about $1,500. This means they must not only survive the next three months but also accumulate at least $1,500 in savings.
They start the game with $500 and 30 health points. They need to grow that money, but also avoid drastically depleting their health points.
As we’re shown in a chart, the three main options – couch surfing, living in a shelter, or living on the streets – each offers different costs and rewards both in cash and health points. Sleeping in the streets, for example, is free, but it’s detrimental to your health. “Every month you choose to sleep outside you lose four years of your life,” Beaver explains. (Each health point represents a year of your life, either lost or saved.) Plus, since “it’s very difficult to get a sustainable job if you’re on the street,” one can only panhandle.
As the three go step by step, challenge by challenge, through each of the three months, we in the audience are asked in real time on Zoom for our advice; the actors argue with us, or ask us to elaborate, or talk it out, before requesting a final show of hands on which path to take. And then we see the scene acted out with that choice, for better or for worse. If this sounds like one of those corporate films that the Human Resources department makes employees watch (or films in high school hygiene classes), at times “Addressless” more closely resembles a gameshow like “Let’s Make a Deal.” Individual audience members are also asked to choose among the icons on the board, behind which is an amount of money, large or small, that will be added to a character’s savings.
I think I understand why “Addressless” takes this approach. Just saying the word “homeless” can put people to sleep. (Hence the title.) It makes sense to find ways to engage and entertain people. Sure this has potential downsides. There’s the possibility of trivializing or distracting from a serious issue. Also, by asking us to tell these people what to do, aren’t we taking away their agency — doing exactly what the do-gooders do, often to their clients’ detriment? (Is the creative team crafty enough to be deliberately provoking us to realize this?)
Ultimately, despite its potential drawbacks, “Addressless” does a couple of beautiful things. It offers yet another example of the flexibility, effectiveness…and theatricality!… of digital theater. And it turns a “them” into an “us.” This is driven home from the get-go, when Shams DaBaron, the actor portraying Wallace, explains to the audience “I’ve been homeless on and off since the age of 10, but I’m currently in an apartment of my own” (He also makes reference to how his activism, initially for serving as spokesman for the residents of the Lucerne Hotel in their fight against the DeBlasio Administration, led to fame as “Da Homeless Hero”) And then there’s the way Bianca Norwood, the actress who portrays Josie, introduces herself: “I’m a recent college grad. This show pays me about $500 a week, and my rent is $1,500. You do the math.”
Rattlestick through February 13
Tickets: $30 (pay what you can on certain nights)
Playwright – Jonathan Payne
Creator/Director – Martin Boross
Joey Auzenne (Louis)
Hope Beaver (Social Worker)
Shams DaBaron (Wallace)
Bianca Norwood (Josie)
Keith Randolph Smith
Scene and props designer Patricia Marjorie; costumer designer Olivera Gajic, composer and music director Tara Khozein, sound designer Julian Evans, graphics/animation Maiko Kikuchi, video editor Matthew Russell