Friday, March 30, 2012

Hilarious "Veri**on Play" Sends Up the Horror Story of Customer Service

Today was my travel day to the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. We were up at the crack of dawn (maybe before the crack of dawn) to drive to Louisville in time for our first play, Lisa Kron's "The Veri**on Play."

The word with the ** in it is obviously Verizon, as in the phone company. Er, telecommunications empire. Giant? Conglomerate? I don't know if the asterisks are there to indicate swearing directed at Verizon or because she thinks she might have legal troubles if she puts their corporate name in her title. Whatever the reason, the target is definitely Verizon, all because the customer service people there made the mistake of ticking off a playwright. In dramaturg Amy Wegener's notes accompanying the play, she says that Kron herself had a run-in with the phone company, one that ended up as "one of those Kafkaesque experiences one has that goes on for many months," in Kron's words. She continues, "I was in a state of apoplectic rage, and found myself screaming at this poor customer service person: 'I'm going to write a play about this!'"

Although the rep on the other hand didn't laugh out loud or anything, it seems likely he or she was not impressed with the threat of theater.

But Kron persevered, writing her "primal scream" of a play as a smart, hilarious trip down a rabbit hole of unseen enemies, empty promises, frustration, crazy people, more crazy people, and a whole lot of romping around. Kron targets technology in general in what she calls a combination of "my love of theatrical craft, my devotion to cheap laughs, and my interest in the alchemy that occurs between stage and audience and lifts us into that delicious 'we're all in this together' feeling."

Well, Lisa Kron, I can honestly say: Mission Accomplished. From beginning to end, I found "The Veri**on Play" funny and entertaining, with all kinds of amusing theatrical tricks, all employed in the best wiseacre tradition. In performance, with a terrific cast that switched roles (and kept fooling me into thinking I was seeing new actors), the play came off creative, surprising, and just plain adorable. "The Veri**on Play" was a great way to kick off my Humana weekend.

Kron herself plays the lead role, one Jenni Jensen, who makes one tiny mistake in which box she checks while paying a bill on-line. After that, the amount she already paid keeps showing up on her bill month after month, no matter how many blithely indifferent customer service people she speaks to. Then the phone calls threatening to turn off her service begin. She hooks up with what she thinks is a support group for people like her, those treated badly by customer service, only to find out they're really an underground Up With People/Down With Faceless Drones and Corporations kind of movement.

Director Nicholas Martin has staged it all in the brightest, most cheerfully ridiculous way possible, with lots of sharp blackouts and changes to new locales, with one quick trip around the world near the end just to show that German and French money machines are just as negative as American ones. Kron's script goes increasingly off the deep end, and Martin navigates those waters beautifully.

I also really loved the costumes from designer Kristopher Castle, showing us an array of hipster doofus pieces put together in bizarre combos, and the fun, fizzy music contributed by sound designer Benjamin Marcum to carry us from one scene to another and from composer Jeanine Tesori, who has created a big honking anthem to urge us all to take a stand and rise up against bad customer service.

If it sounds like a soapbox, trust me when I say it's too funny for that. And too adorable.

Kron's charming presence and comic timing set the mood for the show, with excellent help from the clever, hard-working actors in the ensemble (including Carolyn Baeumler, Joel Van Liew, Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, Ching Valdes-Aran and Clayton Dean Smith). Calvin Smith and Hannah Bos deserve special mention for being absolutely unrecognizable as different characters, and Bos and her sparkly beret and lightning quick changes (as well as her inexplicable Russian accent when she plays a paranoid cigarette-smoking underground activist named Ingrid) are as funny as it gets all the way through.

I haven't got a clue if any other company can pull off the bravura (and fairly shameless) comedy act that is "The Veri**on Play," but I'd sure like to see it if they try.

Trivia note for ISU fans: Alum Sabrina Conti is a member of the Humana Festival Apprentice Company this year, and she appears in the ensemble of this show.

By Lisa Kron

36th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville

Director: Nicholas Martin
Original music by: Jeanine Tesori
Scenic Designer: Tom Tutino
Costume Designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting Designer: Kirk Bookman
Sound Designer: Benjamin Marcum
Music Supervisor: Scott Anthony
Properties Designer: Joe Cunningham
Wig Designer: Heather Fleming
Movement Director: Delilah Smyth
Stage Manager: Stephen Horton
Dramaturg: Amy Wegener

Cast: Lisa Kron, Carolyn Baeumler, Joel Van Liew, Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, Ching Valdes-Aran, Clayton Dean Smith, Calvin Smith, Hannah Bos, Sabrina Conti, Chris Reid.

Running time: 1:40, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: Sunday, April 1 at 3:30 pm


  1. This sounds like so much fun. I feel your enthusiasm in the review. I hope the playwright's phone bill has settled down!!

  2. This sounds like a terrific play! It should have "legs" with lots of audiences, and I hope to see it at some point.

    And I guess I somehow hadn't been paying attention to the level of support personnel they get at Humama, because I'm definitely impressed. "Nicky" Martin is a top-level director (was artistic director of Williamstown for 3 years), and among other things seems to direct Christopher Durang's new plays these days. Which should be perfect prep for a crazy comedy with a serious point like this one.

    And Jeanine Tesori provided the music for lots of plays, plus the muscals Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline or Change. Oh, I so want to see this.

  3. I don't know how much of the play's success lies with Kron, the actor, however. She also played the lead in her play "Well" when it began, and it's had legs, so maybe this one will, too.

    Do note, Jon, that it's not a full-fledged musical. All I noticed were the segues (zippy, fun music, with one that sounds like "Mission Impossible" or a caper film) and then the last big anthem that the whole cast sings. It's always odd to discover that the performers you've been enjoying through the other 95% of the show can sing, too. But they could and did and it was a lot of fun, in a "Urinetown" sort of way.

    I hope Verizon learned not to annoy playwrights!

    I think I must've told you before about the top quality people here -- I was very excited when Bob Balaban was here directing a show some years ago. The new artistic director -- Les Waters -- directed Charles Mee's "Big Love" and Naomi Iizuka's "At the Vanishing Point" here at Humana Festivals past, plus he directed Sarah Ruhl's "Vibrator Play" on Broadway.

    I will let you know if I hear any info about where it's going or if it's going anywhere. When Balaban directed Y2K (by Arthur Kopit) at Humana Fest back in 2000, everybody already knew it was headed to NY before it started. Pretty sure that was also true of Theresa Rebeck's "The Scene."

  4. Oh, I knew it wasn't a musical. Tesori is terrific with incidental music -- remember that "Twelfth Night" at Lincoln Center that got televised? (That music was even put out on a short CD, which I have.) She's sort of an old-fashioned "writer to order," which I much admire.

    And I'm sure you've pointed out the high-level participants there, because I remember about Balaban and some others. Let's just blame my ignorance on my post-op wooziness, shall we? (I'm using that as the scapegoat for most things this weekend.)

  5. Just for clarification, the transitional music between scenes is courtesy of the sound designer, Benjamin Marcum. Tesori wrote the music for the musical number at the end of the show - the grand finale, if you will.

  6. Thanks very much for the correction, Heather! I am happy to fix it to give credit where credit is due.