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Continuous City

The Builders Association's fascinating new show explores interpersonal communication in the Internet age. logo
A scene from Continuous City
(© Eamon Lochte Phelps)
Internet resources like MySpace, Facebook, and have contributed to both an increase in communication amongst friends and family, as well as the breakdown of person-to-person human contact. This dichotomy is intriguingly explored in The Builders Association's fascinating new show, Continuous City, now playing the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The play, written by Harry Sinclair and smoothly directed by Marianne Weems, centers around urban anthropologist Mike Devries (played by Sinclair) -- which is somewhat ironic since he never appears onstage during the course of the performance (although Sinclair did join the rest of the cast for the opening night curtain call). Instead, he is seen on video screens in pre-recorded segments at a range of international locations such as Shanghai and Tijuana. Mike is globe-hopping in order to raise awareness of an Internet startup named Xubu that hopes to revolutionize how families communicate across vast global distances. His primary points of contact are his boss, J.V. (Rizwan Mirza) and his young daughter Sam (Olivia Timothee), who is watched over in his absence by nanny Deb (Moe Angelos).

Mirza, Timothee, and Angelos are all seen live onstage, as are three technicians who are presumably contributing to the very complicated video component of the production. According to press notes, this includes live unrehearsed video chats that Mirza has with actual family members in London and Virginia, who for the sake of the show, address him as J.V., but discuss real events in their lives.

The play itself is something of a cautionary tale about the alienating effects that technology can have on interpersonal communication. J.V. conducts simultaneous Internet romances with a range of women, but when one suggests that she might come visit him, he backs away, claiming that "It's a big commitment, being in the same city." Sam, meanwhile, misses her father and constantly asks him when he's coming home. Their video chats are a poor surrogate, although on the positive side, they enable father and daughter to find ways to play and spend time together. Meanwhile, Deb creates video blogs called "Deb in the City" that she posts on the Internet for her friends to watch. Each character's use of technology ostensibly allows them to connect to others, but it isolates them, as well.

Angelos has a delightful stage presence, and her scenes with Timothee's Sam are full of warmth and humor, even when Sam is shutting Deb out. Since these two are the only ones who appear in actual live sequences together, their interplay is extremely important to the effectiveness of the overall work. Mirza has the difficult task of only interacting with faces on screens, and his somewhat stiff bearing could even be interpreted as character-appropriate. Sinclair has a striking on-screen presence, although his performance contributions are harder to analyze separately, as they depend on the live actors' interactions with his video image.

Finally, kudos should be given to the entire creative team, including set designers James Gibbs, Stewart Laing, and Neal Wilkinson, video designer Peter Flaherty, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and sound designer and composer Dan Dobson. Without them, the whole tech-heavy enterprise would fall apart.

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