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Natalie Gold, Bill Dawes, and Brandon Miller in
The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book
(Photo © Peter Dressel)
Have you ever wondered why the media covers certain story angles while ignoring others? Is it sloppy reporting or the result of some sinister conspiracy? The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book, written by Newsday theater critic Gordon Cox, offers a possible answer. The play combines elements of science fiction and romantic comedy as it tells the story of a young freedom fighter's efforts to topple a multinational conglomerate, referred to as "The Glom," by seducing two of its key employees -- one male, one female. While the writing is often clever, the script contains a few plot holes that make this otherwise enjoyable romp a bit too tough to swallow.

Seth (Brandon Miller) and Oona (Natalie Gold) work for the phone company. While that sounds innocuous, it actually isn't: Their job is to help control the "mediastream," meaning that they redirect calls from reporters, key witnesses to events, and other sources in order to support state-sanctioned narratives and discredit stories that do not toe the line. With a name that speaks to conspiracy theorists everywhere, Grassy Noel (Bill Dawes) sets out to seduce both Seth and Oona -- and succeeds. Neither knows that Noel is sleeping with the other, and when he suddenly applies for a job in their department and is hired, both are eager to keep him there.

The cast is terrific; they spout Cox's technobabble with clarity and precision so that you can actually understand just what it is these phone operatives do. Dawes is utterly charming and has great chemistry with both Gold and Miller, which helps to make the romantic triangle effective. Rounding out the cast is John C. Vennema as the trio's boss, named Bud. Vennema is particularly hilarious when Bud deadpans various work platitudes such as "My door is always open. Even if sometimes it's actually closed."

Kimo Desean's set and lighting design achieves a kind of hi-tech look with a lo-tech budget. The audience is meant to imagine a glossy plexiglass and neon environment, even if what we actually see are painted pieces of wood. Directed by Suzanne Agins, the production moves at a fast clip and provides acute commentary on global conspiracies as well as human relationships.

Not everything in the show works. For example, it's unclear why Noel tries to turn Seth against Oona, going so far as recommending to Seth that he report his co-worker for an unauthorized call that she made. Noel's overall objective, stated clearly within the script, is to turn both Seth and Oona against the Glom, so pitting them against each other makes no sense. (This particular plot thread is soon dropped and never picked up again.) It also seems unlikely that Seth, Oona, Noel, and Bud would make up the entire department for the kind of work they do. There's not even a night shift -- so any controversial phone calls made after hours would presumably go through, since no one would be around to prevent them.

As The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book reaches its climax, the dialogue becomes less and less believable, and Noel is reduced to a caricature. This section of the play is still entertaining but it doesn't have the same smart, satirical tone that make the earlier scenes so amusing. Though all theater requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, Cox stretches credibility a bit too thin.

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