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Can a play have a human tragedy obscured by bureaucratic minutiae as its topic without drowning in those selfsame minutiae? Survey says: nope! Adjust The Procedure, a streaming production in this year’s Fringe, is about (or should be about) a student at an unnamed, midsized, midtier university during the pandemic who tells a faculty member he is planning suicide. Due to a failure of the university regarding its health services, the student does die by suicide.
Unfortunately, although this is the closest thing to a heart the play has, it turns out to be no more than a plot device to gather these four characters in one space. Actually, make those four spaces, since the show is a “Zoom Play.” When Adjust the Procedure premiered in March of this year, it was hailed as the first show to really take advantage of the possibilities of Zoom. The changing of the number of boxes shown on the screen from two, to three, to four, to one, reminded me that electricity was seen as newfangled and exciting once upon a time, too.
The reason the play needs an autopsy is because it looks fine, externally. The actors are all in command of their craft and bring their respective characters to life. The text, written by award-winning playwright Jake Shore (who also directs) is fluid and lively, if a bit didactic. The unnecessary death of a promising youngster should always make for a compelling topic, but I just didn’t care.
One possible reason for the piece’s DOA status is that we know nothing about these characters, beyond their jobs and hierarchical relation to one another. They function primarily as archetypes. It’s a choice, and structurally it makes sense as it allows the play to focus on the tragedy, but it fails miserably. If you’ve ever been to brunch and discovered a nearby couple in the midst of breaking up, you know that the first 10 or so minutes are gold, but by the time they start in on who gets the XBOX One and who gets the Vitamix, it’s a regular snoozefest.
There’s the putative hero, Kyle (played by Adam Files), a former adjunct who is now director of academic development. Kyle will risk his job if it means doing what is right for his students. Ben (Nicholas Miles Newton) the assistant dean of student achievement, who is a conciliator, people pleaser, and wants peace above all. There’s Aimee (Meagan Moses), the director of enrollment management, who at first seems to be just another flack for the administration. And finally, Frank (Ed Altman) the executive dean who is a full-on (possibly Trumpist) asshole only concerned with saving his own hide. Four characters who are at cross-purposes this extreme should result in a deeply felt, emotionally resonant piece, but all we get is anger and frustration.
In every review there is a moment to discuss set and lighting choices. Spoiler: there weren’t any. Boxes on screen, y’all.
Characters as archetypes, while a contributing factor, aren’t the cause of death. That would be academia. As someone who’s spent time in the profession, I can tell you it bores anyone on the outside. Even more boring than discussing academia is debating directives governing it. The play posits that “When someone dies, there are consequences.” In this case, soulless theater is that outcome.
What, When, Where
Adjust the Procedure. Written and directed by Jake Shore. $10. Streaming through October 4, 2021. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
The streaming piece takes place on Zoom with no captioning.
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