Forever ago, in March 2020, a press agent handed me tickets before a show and said, “Ninety minutes, no intermission, thank God.”
But those days of durational drama are gone. The pandemic has been whittling down running times as if attention spans, like paper towels, were running short. Even “Angels in America” caught the disease, showing up online in October at 50 minutes instead of the customary seven hours.
So when I heard that the British playwright Caryl Churchill, already a master of concision, had upped (or lowered) the ante with a 14-minute play — not a doodle or a one-act meant for pairing with others, but a stand-alone event — I began to wonder what advantages might be found in the shorter forms that online theater made feasible. Or was the pandemic just an excuse for clearing out the small ideas that clutter every writer’s notepad and napping dreams?
That Churchill play — “What If If Only,” presented by the National Asian American Theater Company — is the briefest of three I saw in the last week alone. “The Floor Wipers,” from the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, runs 15 minutes; “Ali Summit,” from the Actors Theater of Louisville, weighs in at 23.
Paradoxically, their similar lengths — just a gulp, and they’re over — help to differentiate them, as the various ways in which they pack their brief time are highlighted instead of papered over.
Churchill is not, in any event, a paper-overer. “What If If Only” is harrowing from nearly the first instant, as a woman begs her late husband, who may have committed suicide, to make contact from beyond.
“Are you not trying?” she cries. “If you’d wanted to talk to me you could have stayed alive.”
Soon the husband does appear, as the wisp of a ghost that could become real, he says, if only his wife would make him “possible.”
Merging Churchill’s frequent themes of dread (“Escaped Alone,” “Far Away”) and duplication (“A Number,” “Love and Information”), “What If If Only” dismisses its speculative worlds as quickly as it creates them. The wife’s despair, tearing a hole in space-time, soon releases a multiplicity of possible versions of her husband, had he lived, crowding out the “real” one. Even when she shoos them away in terror, one remains stuck in her hair.
“Just brush with your fingers,” her husband says gently. “All gone.”
I call the main characters “she” and “her husband” because the livestreamed production, perfectly and creepily “realized” by the stage director Les Waters and the theater tech guru Jared Mezzocchi, casts the roles to suggest that the mourner is a woman (Mia Katigbak, superb as always) and the ghost is a man (Bernard White).
But the play’s horror, which in Churchill is never just cosmological but also spiritual, comes from the combination of its radical relevance to any human and its freakish compression, in which 14 minutes becomes a literal deadline. The extreme brevity — typical one-acts more often last an hour or longer — serves as a tool, like a socket wrench, to make clear that grief is unbearable, even in small doses.
“Ali Summit,” by Idris Goodwin, also feels usefully short, in the manner of a teaser designed to encourage deeper research and reflection. The subject is the June 1967 meeting at which major Black athletes — including Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (not yet known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) — questioned Muhammad Ali about his conscientious objection to military service.
Though Ali’s justification now seems incontrovertible — “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” — he was nevertheless convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight title, sentenced to five-years in a federal penitentiary and fined $10,000. Five years later, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
None of that falls within the scope of “Ali Summit,” which limits itself to the disruptive and galvanizing effect Ali had on his colleagues that summer. In fact, Ali, though he is represented, like all the characters, in a series of beautiful collages by Andy Perez, does not speak in the play. Only the others do, voiced by actors who give full force to the confusion and anguish of men who are already questioning what it means, as Black athletes working for white “owners,” to fight.
“We are soldiers, all of us really, enlisted since birth,” says the Griot, or narrator figure, portrayed by the playwright and rendered as a wide-eyed witness.
The language, mixing earthy jargon with breakbeat poetics, is as much a collage as the visuals and does a good job of setting the tone of urgent reflection. But also like the visuals, which are filmed in the familiar documentary pan-and-scan style, it tends to flatten conflict that wants to be more argumentative and three-dimensional. (An immersive virtual reality element is scheduled to be added later this summer.) As if to make up for that, “Ali Summit,” directed by Robert Barry Fleming, mines emotion from the pressurized implications of its transitional moment, a moment we are somehow still living through.
“I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali,” Russell says. “I’m worried about the rest of us.”
Athletes figure in “The Floor Wipers,” too — indirectly. Its two characters, Racine and Tiana, are members of an “elite squad” given the responsibility, during the N.B.A.’s coronavirus-bubble playoffs last year, of keeping basketball courts dry and sweat-free. (This is a real job.) An exaggerated, “Law & Order”-style introduction immediately identifies “The Floor Wipers” as quick-take comedy; in a handful of episodes of just a few minutes each, the women gossip and sass on the sidelines while waiting for their big moments.
For Tiana (Jaylene Clark Owens), those moments are about furthering God’s plan that she marry one of the players; she’d prefer Jayson Tatum but would settle for Nikola Jokic. Racine (Taysha Marie Canales) has more modest goals: to work off her pandemic 15 and save money for her first trip “abroad” — to Texas.
Conceived by Canales, directed by Akeem Davis and written by both along with Owens, “The Floor Wipers” is really just a sketch, but it does not ignore the way the outside world penetrates even a bubble. Tiana and Racine wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts, take note of the kneeling players and lose work when games are canceled in protest over the shooting of Jacob Blake. The sure touch of the writing and especially of the performing mean that the comedy isn’t canceled by the intimations of tragedy. Instead, you laugh with a catch in your throat, and the whole thing evaporates before you can ask too much of it.
That’s smart, and something I wish other sketch shows, some of which are televised on Saturday nights, would learn from.
For dread, though, a heavy boil may be best. That’s what Churchill gives us in “What If If Only,” and why it will likely stand on its own even when mounted live in a theater, as the Royal Court in London plans to do this fall. But be warned that Churchill, even at 14 minutes, doesn’t evaporate. When she leaves a kettle on the fire that long, it often bursts into flames.
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