John Rosenberg moved his eclectic do-it-yourself theater company Hella Fresh from Kensington to Los Angeles, but returns electronically to produce and direct his play But Next Not This. The housebound but bicoastal show takes place simultaneously in Berkeley, California, and a Fishtown rowhome.
Unfortunately, the technology isn't as miraculous as one might hope, but, like the play, it's gritty and realistic. Those fortunate enough to have seen Tiny Dynamite's Perfect Blue, in which a Philadelphia character interacted live with another character in England via computer, won't see the same futuristic setup here.
In a Fishtown living room with the action inches away, we watch Bonita (Anna Michael) and girlfriend Amanda (Lexi Pozonsky) making soup and chatting when Bonita's phone rings. It's Bonita's sister Juanita (Jill Galbraith), calling from Berkeley with her new friend Daryl (Lyssa Samuel). Bonita connects her smartphone to a portable speaker, and we can hear the conversation's Berkeley side — sort of.
While the cast explained afterward that other tech solutions were considered, the best solution for the play was to keep it real. They rejected ideas like subtitled dialogue on a computer screen or headphones for audience members, because these would impose technology on the theater experience. So we don't understand every word Juanita and Daryl say, although future performances will probably clean up some of the problems. However, just like when overhearing a friend's call, we piece together what's happening.
We're in a room with two women, listening to their side of a conversation, taking in their reactions. They communicate nonverbally with looks, gestures, and touches and do things that contradict what they tell their callers. The same, presumably, occurs in Berkeley. Juanita is high when she calls, which ignites Bonita's concern — though she and Amanda are hung over from their own partying. When Bonita finds out that Juanita is with Bonita's crazy ex-girlfriend Daryl, her protective instincts blast into overdrive.
Rosenberg wisely makes the one-hour, Fringy, site-specific experience less important than the witty, complex, emotionally open characters. Michael and Pozonsky make a convincing couple, challenged not only by worrisome little sister Juanita but also by the divisive Daryl revelation; Bonita explains to Amanda that Daryl was "my you at Berkeley."
The Fishtown characters seem more credible than the Left Coast duo, but audiences there probably feel the same about their cast. The relationship complexities prove compelling, and the acting is achieved with ease and veracity — even more impressive considering that Rosenberg directed the Philadelphia cast by Skype, phone, and email.
Tech communication isn't the same as being there, so for those precious few of us who became Hella Fresh Theater fans when Rosenberg lived here, Not Next But This is an intriguing tease. Hopefully, co-producers Hum'n'bards, dedicated to connecting with fellow artists long-distance, will collaborate with Rosenberg again.
What, When, Where
Not Next But This. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Hella Fresh Theatre Company and Hum'n'bards. Through October 29, 2017, at 1318 Crease Street, Philadelphia. (480) 341-9557 or hellafreshtheater.com.