The cast of Olney Theatre Center's The Humans
The cast of The Humans. Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

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To Zoom or not to Zoom? Six months into the pandemic, that is theater’s great ontological question. 

With few signs of indoor, in-person theater returning to Maryland, Virginia, or the District any time soon, should theaters find a way to make actors appear as little squares on a laptop screen, like your colleagues on an interminable work team meeting? And if theaters do go that route, are the results worth paying the extra money and taking a night off from Netflix?

Sometimes. Maybe. It depends.

Olney Theatre Center is the region’s first theater to virtually  “stage” a previously scheduled play. (It’s also the region’s first theater to receive a rave review for its virtual project in the New York Times. There’s one benefit of the pandemic: D.C. actors receiving high praise for their “acute and balanced production” featuring “soul-scraping moments.”)

Six actors were already rehearsing Stephen Karam’s dark comedy The Humans when the pandemic forced the theater to close its doors in March. “We tore down the scenery and threw it in the dumpster,” Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith says in his intro to the video version. In June, Olney decided to use some money from its Paycheck Protection Program loan to rehire actors. The Humans was eventually filmed in six separate locations, even though Karam set the play in one small New York apartment where a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. 

Technical logistics were easier than the legal wrangling. Once Karam gave his permission, Olney began bargaining with Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing American stage actors and stage managers. Actors cannot work during the pandemic without permission from the union, and many theaters have complained about long waits to get Equity contracts approved. To save time, money, or both, some theater companies are defaulting to contracts governed by the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists instead. 

Olney deserves credit for staying the course with Equity and offering the union what the theater calls “an offer it couldn’t refuse.” For each of the four weeks that The Humans is available online, the theater will contribute to Equity-League Benefit Funds, the organization that administers Equity members’ benefits. If union members work 19 weeks each year, they qualify to receive a year of health insurance coverage. 

Since March, however, few theaters have paid into the fund, and Equity has told its members that the healthcare fund has nearly depleted its reserves. Nearly all of Equity’s 51,000 members who had previously received healthcare through the union expect to soon lose their coverage. 

It’s a shitty situation. Bravo to Olney for trying to make it better, even when the theater announced it would furlough or reduce hours for more than 50 percent of its administrative staff in late September. 

The Humans is worth watching if you really miss seeing local actors like Mitchell Hébert, Sherri L. Edelen, Dani Stoller, and Kimberly Gilbert, and have the emotional stamina for two hours of  virtual “soul scraping.”. Stoller stars as Brigid, a struggling composer who moves to a gritty lower Manhattan apartment and invites her family over for a turkey dinner, as cooked by her ever-patient boyfriend, a social work grad student played by Jonathan Raviv. Gilbert plays Aimee, her older sister devastated by a recent break-up and the office politics at her law firm. Both younger women are so wrapped up in their own woes, they struggle to get beyond surface-level interactions with their parents, Deidre and Erik (Edelen and Hébert), well meaning, working class parents who can’t understand why, in just two generations, their Irish Catholic family would flee New York poverty, then seemingly return to it. 

“Your bathroom doesn’t have a window,” Deidre observes after using the facilities. “I love you but…” 

Brigid cuts her off: “Mom, go downstairs,” she says, directing her mother to a windowless basement where viewers must imagine a table has been set with paper plates and plastic utensils. “How do you like our fine china?” she quips. 

The actors’ heads appear in rectangles, using a model of Paige Hathaway’s set as a background. Disembodied faces float around depending on which floor the actors are on, and disappear entirely when their characters are in the bathroom or the kitchen. A narrator reads the stage directions.

It’s a less-than-satisfying way to take in the 2016 Tony-winning best play. And to an extent, having seen the play previously (the tour came to the Kennedy Center in 2018) makes the virtual version feel limited. Clearly, Olney’s production had potential to be better than the tour. From their constrictive boxes, these actors still manage to convey all the little heartbreaks of The Humans. As cheap champagne flows during dinner, members of the Blake family confess a series of physical and economic downturns, all while Momo, the dementia-addled matriarch played by Catie Flye, prattles nonsense and spills Ensure everywhere. 

Somehow the impulse to empathize and cry with these characters travels through fiber optic cables. Could the sense of despair from watching The Humans also be compounded by viewing the play at home, perhaps alone, on the same screen you use for work meetings? Absolutely. It’s an unexpected peril of virtual theater. 

Which is why, for my money, new plays written for the internet, with some stated reason for actors to appear as talking heads, have been more worthwhile projects for theaters to take on during the pandemic. Still, good art is always a metaphor for something more, and that’s the case with this play. What is 2020 if not a long string of little tragedies, all experienced with too few meaningful human connections?

Available to stream through Oct. 4. $35.