It is always wonderful to go to the theater an be pleasantly surprised. I don't mean surprised because a play is better than one expected it to be: I mean surprised because the play took you on an unexpected, thrilling journey. Such was the experience of seeing Regina Taylor's production of her challenging play, stop.reset. at the Signature last night. From what I read, I expected a realistic play about the head of an African-American publishing house facing the brutal challenges of selling books in the age of the internet. Indeed this is the conventional, realistic part of the story. Alexander Ames, founder of the publishing house, came up from nothing. For a while, he presided over the first and
most successful Black owned publishing business, housed in its own impressive Chicago building. Now the business is foundering. There has been a merger and the new owners demand a turnaround of the business or else liquidation. Part of that turnaround will require downsizing of an already reduced staff. Yet Ames, whose beloved son was murdered and who has suffered a mild stroke, seems more concerned with his crossword puzzle than his business. One by one, he interviews his remaining staff to try to decide who can stay. While Ames seems rooted in his racial, familial and professional past and in his love for books, which are mementos of the past, his staff is very much in the present, concerned about keeping their jobs. They swear loyalty, but betray each other when Ames asks them who should go and who should stay. Each person presents a racial-ethnic-gendered point of view. The Asian-American woman hints at sexual favors if she is kept -- the price women sometimes have to play in the marketplace; the white man plays the race card; the younger Black man has been cozying up to the new owners; and the middle-aged Black woman, taking servility to an extreme, gets hypothermia trying to get coffee for the boss in a blizzard. Ames's interviews with these people are dramatically fascinating if conventional. BUT -- and this is a big BUT -- his key antagonist is not one of his staff. It's a nineteen-year-old janitor (is he really a janitor?) constantly talking on his Bluetooth device -- to whom? J. (no name), is a young, multi-ethnic, perhaps metrosexual young man for whom cyberspace is a kind of religion. Unlike the hyper-articulate authors Ames reveres, J. is semi-literate (who needs to read now?) but a kind of author, reaching constantly to his invisible audience offering updates. He speaks in tweets. He is also involved in some sort of elaborate cyber game in which the only currency is points. Unlike Ames, J. has no meaningful past and seems indifferent to the past. With J's entry into Ames's office, and Ames's fascination with this strange quasi-mystical kid, stop.reset. merges realism and science fiction in fascinating ways. Ultimately the play is about the power of memory and the ways in which memories have been transmitted and the ways in which they link people culturally. Ames is crippled by being all memory. J has none until there is a kind of mind meld at the end of the play.
I don't want to give too much away, but I can't recommend this play highly enough. It's purposely baffling at times -- perhaps constantly baffling to audience members with no knowledge of science fiction. It is also constantly absorbing -- even exciting. Alexander Ames, Taylor's central character, loves Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, one of the classic American novels and one that moves from realism to surrealism. Taylor, too, has been influenced by Ellison. J is a kind of Invisible Man for our century. The final image of stop.reset. is an echo of Ellison's epic novel in which one must destroy the scraps of paper that seem to hold one's identity. Regina Taylor has written a fascinating script. She has also created an excellent production, from the constantly changing projections to the realistic interactions of characters, to the play's believable move into strange, gripping new territory. Her cast couldn't be better. The wonderful Carl Lumbly brings to life all the contradictions of Alexander Ames. The young Ismael Cruz Cordova, a star in the making, is riveting as the young prophet of the world of the disconnected mind. Ames' staff -- played by Michi Barrall, Teagle F. Bougere, Latanya Richardson Jackson and Donald Sage Mackay, all familiar from roles on stage and television -- are all convincing and credibly make the change from realistic to surreal in the last moments of the play.
stop.reset. deserves to reach a younger audience than the middle-aged to elderly audience at the Signature on Friday night. It's only $25 dollars -- a cheap night on the town.
I place it in the "Must See' category. I'm going again if I can.
stop.reset. Signature Theatre. August 30, 2013.