See OVERRIDE (this is a theatre review)

The Landing Theatre Company’s debut of Elizabeth A. M. Keel’s new play about simulation and intimacy gives us intimacy without simulation.

Promotional artwork from The Landing Theatre Company

When my wife and I pulled up to the performance space, I thought that I had misentered the address into Google Maps before suddenly having the freefall recollection that Override is produced in people’s private homes. I’m a big fan of productions that alter the traditional performance framework, but I’m always initially nervous to see how it will be justified by the production. (Also, the thought of being in a stranger’s home sets my teeth on the edge of my seat. But that’s my damage.) However, Override used the alteration quite effectively to make even more immediate its tale the difficulty and importance of human connections.

The play centers on Louise (Joanna Hubbard) and her housemate Grav (Scott Searles). Louise is a student at a prestigious tech academy, trying to figure out the flaws in her prototype for a device that simulates complex, emotionally-invested sensory experiences (“thought-touches” in the play). She envisions this as a therapy aid, but it also fills a more immediate, pressing need: funding. In order to solve the problems of her tech, she enlists the reluctant help of her housemate and fellow student Grav, who has fundamental problems with her methods, her project, and its subject matter.

In the space of a single hour, the play explores all angles of this set-up: the personality conflict between the neurotically reserved Grav and the “sensualist” Louise, the neurochemistry and psychology of Louise’s device, the importance of human contact, the difficulty of determining intent, class disparities, the devaluation of “soft skills”… I was particularly pleased when Grav started raising ethical problems with the science. In an age where the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” has destroyed entire industries, ruined lives, and damaged ecosystems, it’s good to see a scientist–even a fictional one–who is concerned by the unintended consequences of scientific endeavor. However, this play doesn’t even flirt with the easy alarmism of lazy science fiction–a trope that gives us numerous iterations of “WE SHOULD DESTROY THIS TECHNOLOGY BEFORE IT DESTROYS US!” Keel is too well-versed in her science fiction to take such banal turns, instead giving us something that is both large and immediate–a digital cure for loneliness. Override moves through these beats quickly and naturally with good humor and emotional weight.

Of course, in a play which only two actors work in a space so intimate they could sit on the audience’s lap without difficulty (this didn’t happen… but maybe in the midnight show?), those actors are under incredible pressure to turn in a performance that can bear such close scrutiny. Fortunately, both Hubbard and Searles are more than equal to the task.

Joanna Hubbard’s Louise is passionate and energetic without ever going into “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” territory. She has a good deal of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy she has to deliver in her dialogue, but it’s always delivered in a confident, unpretentious manner that better helps the audience follow along. Also, there were several short lines–functional stuff, like asking Grav if he wants popcorn–that could have been throwaway lines for another actor. Hubbard invests these with character so that not a single moment is wasted in the presentation of her arc. Every syllable is thoroughly Louised.

But as invigorating as Hubbard’s performance is, I’d like to call special attention to Scott Searles’s turn as Grav–precisely because this is the sort of work actors don’t get enough credit for. To say Grav is emotionally withdrawn would be simplistic, but since I’m trying to keep this review short, that’s what I’m going to say. As someone whose emotional range isn’t always visible from space, I am always glad to see these characters done well. Unfortunately, they often aren’t. I have seen far too many movies or TV shows in which an actor “plays” reserved by means of a low-energy performance. Meanwhile, the benchmark for this sort of character is probably Robin Williams’s work in Awakenings. His character has all the same dynamism and energy as any of Williams’s other performances–the difference is that all of that energy is turned inward.

This is what Searles does. His Grav is an underwater earthquake–incredible seismic activity hidden from view and constrained by tons of pressure. There’s a tension to his speech patterns and to his movements which never fail to communicate the inner conflict of a man who finds human contact physically unpleasant but still years for connection. It would have been so easy for him to coast and let Hubbard carry the show–and it still would have been a great play–but Scott Searles’s decisions invest Grav with an undeniable sense of human, pain, and dignity.

Of course, both of these performances owe their share to director Bree Bridger. For a cast to give such bare and honest performances as these, it usually demands an atmosphere of freedom and trust which depends entirely on the director. But Bridger not only had to manage her actors, but the space as well. I have done enough directing in-the-round to know I hate it. It is exhausting work, framing motivated movements that have to be readable from a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. But Bridger’s direction not only manages to make this action believable and natural, but conceivably does so for all the different performance venues the show has to be reimagined for (remember, it is staged in people’s homes–note the plural).

Which brings us back to the private-home conceit. This is a play about intimacy and simulation–especially how the limits between simulation and reality can be eroded and even crossed. To that end, it makes perfect sense that the play should be performed in this way. The traditional theatre set-up is both artificial and safe. Set designers put a lot of thought and artistry into making this constructed space feel lived-in, but it will always be a simulation of a space. However, by putting this in a real living room (a real “lived-in” space), the production is able to further the play’s meditation on simulation and intimacy, giving us an intimate experience that is in no way simulated–even if it begins with an intimate simulation of the simulation of intimacy.

That will make sense when you go see it.

The short version is this:
A) If you are in Houston, your weekend plans involve seeing Override.
B) If you are not in Houston, but are Houston-adjacent, your weekend plans involve driving into Houston and seeing Override.
C) If you are not in Houston, and cannot be Houston-adjacent, your weekend plans don’t matter because your life is meaningless and dark, unwarmed by either love or kolaches.

Override was written by Elizabeth A.M. Keel. It is produced by The Landing Theatre Company, directed by Bree Bridger, and stars Joanna Hubbard and Scott Searles. The final run of performances is scheduled for September 26, 27, and 28 (at 8pm), and September 29 (at 3pm). Tickets will not be sold at the door, so in order to purchase tickets, please visit the production website at https://www.landingtheatre.org/override.

Full disclosure: Elizabeth Keel is a friend of mine, and I would like to be her when I grow up.

2 thoughts on “See OVERRIDE (this is a theatre review)

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