The world premiere of Regina Taylor's futuristic play will make you think twice about trading in your hardcovers for an eBook.
As patrons enter the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the Twitter handle @SignatureTheatr is projected over the stage as a welcoming invitation to engage with the theater's virtual community. Upon exiting, the invitation feels more like an ironic suggestion, for you leave Regina Taylor's new play Stop. Reset. tempted to discontinue all of your social-media accounts and cleanse your life of technological devices.
In the midst of a Chicago blizzard, we meet a motley crew of four frustrated employees stranded in the office of the city's oldest African-American book publishing company: Jan, a middle-aged African-American lesbian (played by the spitfire Latanya Richardson Jackson); Deb, a Japanese-American woman with a paralyzing fear of unemployment (a comically high-strung Michi Barall); Chris, a young African-American man with family ties to the company (a solid performance by Teagle F. Bougere); and Tim, a self-absorbed Caucasian man who prides himself on his knowledge of black history (a convincingly pompous Donald Sage Mackay). All four sweat bullets as they wait for their boss, Alexander Ames (commandingly portrayed by Carl Lumbly), to announce a layoff — each person taking a turn to plead his or her case throughout the day (all except for Jan who was handed the unfortunate task of venturing out into the blizzard to replenish the office's coffee supply).
As the sleek, Apple product-filled office (designed by Neil Patel) suggests, the age of physical books that you can touch and smell and mark up with scribbled margin notes is quickly fading, soon to be replaced entirely by Kindles and eBooks and potentially even more advanced technology that further virtualizes the reading experience. Whether that should be feared as a symbol of a crumbling society or embraced as progress is anyone's guess, though Taylor thoughtfully presents both sides of the argument.
Ames begins as a stalwart traditionalist, mourning the death of the tangible experience that books once offered. However, his opinions gradually move to the other extreme when he meets a mysterious young man named J (Ismael Cruz Cordova). J presents himself as the office janitor, but in fact he is visiting from the future and has a wealth of technological knowledge that could put Ames' company years ahead of everyone else in the publishing industry.
Taylor cleverly captures a vision of our trajectory as a society in this singular character. Unlike Ames and his four employees who often revert back to discussions of age, race, gender, and sexuality, frequently dividing themselves into teams along these lines, J fits into none of these, illustrated by his gender-neutral title and ethnically ambiguous appearance. This all-encompassing neutrality suggests that these categorizations are headed toward irrelevance, which, by most people's standards, would be considered social progress. Yet as we watch him wander through the office with his rubber gloves, spraying and dusting every corner until it reaches the sterility of a hospital room, we learn that we are simultaneously headed down a path of complete disconnection from the reality of our physical world.
With technology creeping into every corner of society at an increasingly rapid pace, Taylor's play offers socially relevant food for thought, sure to resonate with audiences of all ages. You leave wondering, however, if Stop. Reset. adds anything new to the menu or merely supplies an organized buffet of ideas that have already been thoroughly analyzed and debated in the academic arena.
Still, there is something to be said for the power that a theatrical presentation can add to these academic arguments, with impressive projections (by Shawn Sagady) and lighting design (by Lap Chi Chu) that firmly place us in this futuristic world. However, at times, the science fiction elements become more of a distraction than a means of communicating the play's message. J's exact origins are never fully clarified and the depiction of a time-traveling world of the future is hazy at best. Yet to be fair, a staged explanation of the technology behind Google Glass, most likely, would not be any easier to follow. Perhaps Taylor is merely leveling the playing field and allowing people of all ages and levels of tech savvy to spend an hour and a half feeling equally irrelevant.