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How much of your (perhaps no longer scarce) unoccupied time would you give up to navigate an automated phone tree? How willingly would you embrace this infuriating reminder of the insignificance of our problems and of ourselves if there were no tangible prize—a refund, the restoration of your internet service, a brusque chat with your doctor—theoretically awaiting you after some unknown interval of keyboard hopscotch? “Please listen to all options, as our menu has recently changed.” Has it ever.
The phone tree has always been a ready target for satire, but perhaps only a plague that has made assembling indoors deadly could reclaim it as a platform for exploration. Seven theatermakers (several playwrights, a couple of dramaturgs, a sound designer, an “artscientist” and one “prosewright”) calling themselves the Telephonic Literary Union attempt that very thing in Human Resources, the … show? game? interactive installation? … that has the grim honor of opening what Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is calling its first digital season.
It works like this: $7 buys you a code that works for four days, during which you can dial back in as many times as you like. “To file a claim for unhappiness, press 1. For the Department of Conscious Rearrangement, press 2.” Depending on which options you select, and, of course, the level of sincerity with which you make your elections, you may find yourself engaged in an examination of your feelings in matters personal or political. Your call may be disconnected, once or several times, after which you’ll be texted a different code to allow you to resume the piece without going through the intake menu again. As with immersive theater productions like Sleep No More, wherein the audience wanders a large, elaborately set-dressed building, encountering various scenes in no particular sequence, you decide when you’ve had enough. The show is over when you’re no longer interested enough to call back again, or when your $7 code expires.
I stuck with it for about 45 minutes. In that time, I received three callback codes, eavesdropped on a furtive conversation between men who seem to have conspired in some vague but dire crime, listened to a Nobel Prize-winning novelist expound upon the nature of white supremacy, heard some tragically uninformed fool proclaim The Goonies “the best adventure film of the ’80s,” and was briefly fooled into thinking I was in speaking with a live person, though the entire presentation is recorded. Journalists covering the show got a hyperlinked PDF of the script, which is sort of like handing someone a floor plan of the McKittrick Hotel—the creepy lodging where Sleep No More was set—along with their ticket. I didn’t look at the script until after I decided I was finished with the telephone games.
Assessing the aesthetic value of an experiment like this is far less clear than reviewing a play, but I can say that there’s certainly $7 worth of provocation and diversion here, even while believing its authors have not yet fully realized the potential of the format. But given how long it’s likely to be before they can present their work to a captive and communal audience again, there’s much incentive for them to tinker. Had I been invited to participate in a brief survey evaluating my experience of Human Resources, I would award the enterprise a “6” overall. If asked how likely I am to recommend Human Resources to a friend, I would select “7.” Who says criticism is dead?
Available via phone through Oct. 25. $7. woollymammoth.net.