The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Relief from Zoom sometimes comes in a box. A play in a box.

“The Humans,” by Stephen Karam and directed by Aaron Posner, was recorded with the actors in six locations and edited on top of the original model for the set designed by Paige Hathaway. (Olney Theatre Center)
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In just six months, “zoom” has gone from signifying something moving fast to something you can’t get away from fast enough. If you’re on the Zoom meeting circuit, you know all too well what I mean. And if you’ve been in the market for online theatrical diversions, you surely know what I mean, too.

Which is why I was tickled when the box arrived in the mail from Baltimore’s sharp little experimental company the Acme Corporation. The group, led by Artistic Director Lola B. Pierson, sent me — and you can get one, too — a literal play in a box: a do-it-in-your-own-time delight titled “The Institute for Counterfeit Memory.” All it requires is a performance space (the top of a kitchen table), about 25 minutes and a longing for the days, now zooming rapidly into the past, when you could sit in a packed little theater and let some smart new entertainment wash over you.

“The Institute for Counterfeit Memory” is most certainly the sum of its parts, which all come in a nifty 4-by-6-by-3½ -inch box bearing a logo representing the mind and a slogan: “Bringing you back to you.” The contents will remain secret here; you’ll find that their uses are orchestrated elegantly, via writer-director Pierson and a voice in your ear — delivered on the mini MP3 player that comes in your kit — that escorts you through an intro to the Institute.

So power down the laptop and the phone. The play, performed by Molly Cohen, Megan Livingston, Bob Norman and Kaya Vision, takes the form of an instructional guide into both the uniqueness — and utter blandness — of recorded experience. Intermingled with a pleasant narrator issuing commands, all to be followed with the help of some ridiculously simple cue cards, you hear snippets of monologues and a conversation. They’re the puzzle pieces of a play you can never see. It’s the job of the Institute, it seems, to provide the counterfeit memories of your having seen it, and to plant in your mind suggestions of sensations and idle thoughts that might have occurred to you, had you actually been watching a show in person, in the dark.

“You think about something ordinary, like what you need from the grocery store,” the narrator posits, in one of the moments that, yes, ring true about the multiple places your mind can wander during a play. “The Institute for Counterfeit Memory” cannily employs the devices it provides to bring you back to the feeling of being in a room with other spectators, even as it reminds you that you are alone. Its ministrations so impressed me that when I turned over the final cue card instructing me to applaud, I actually did.

This Zoom magic show delivers a box to your house. Then it blows your mind.

Theater people are nothing if not scavengers: Desperate in a time of shutdown to use their skills, they’ll look for any available platform and make it theirs. Theater is happening anew on outdoor stages in socially distanced configurations, in radio formats, even over phones. Not everyone, though, can drop a production in your mailbox; so many writers, actors and directors have for the time being nested on the most accessible digital driftwood: Zoom. It has become a necessary utensil, like a spatula. The limitations of a format involving endless galleries of talking heads have become increasingly, drearily apparent, even as artists of the stage work diligently to improve its technical elasticity. And, in some cases, succeed.

Playwright-director Richard Nelson has been one of Zoom’s most industrious adherents. With his latest Zoom play, “Incidental Moments of the Day,” he completes over the months of the shutdown an achingly poignant trilogy that maps out the existential black hole we seem to have fallen into. Starved of the ability to gather around the dining room table — as they had in previous, live-audience installments of the Apple Family plays, the Apples of Rhinebeck, N.Y., now congregate on Zoom. The sense of a family keeping in touch but ever more adrift hangs over the electronic connection.

That’s the thing about a quarantine: The longer you stay in one place, the more psychically scattered you feel. That, at least, is what’s evoked in Nelson’s most embraceable character, Barbara Apple (played by the indispensable Maryann Plunkett), a retired high school teacher of brittle affect who doesn’t thrive in isolation. To complicate her plight, the lives of her brother (Jay O. Sanders) and sisters (Laila Robins and Sally Murphy) are percolating even as hers seems to be coming apart.

The Apple plays are more character than plot-driven, which suits the format: The siblings (and the partner of Murphy’s Jane, played by Stephen Kunken) log on to keep going on. You get a deepening sense over the course of the trilogy that something isn’t quite right in the relationship between Jane and Kunken’s Tim, for instance. Though they live together, they are never once together on Zoom. What unites them all in joy is art: From a Paris flat, a former student of Barbara’s named Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) appears in a Zoom cube, to perform a modern dance set to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

The camera in this moment catches the look of rapture on the face of Sanders’s Richard. It is a bona fide asset of Zoom, the facility for portraying the watchers watching, separately and together.

Olney Theatre Center and director Aaron Posner have developed an intriguing variation on classic, static-screen Zoom for their production of Stephen Karam’s highly regarded family drama “The Humans.” Unlike the Apples of Rhinebeck, the Blakes of Scranton — assembled in the Lower East Side apartment of younger daughter Brigid (Dani Stoller) and partner Richard (Jonathan Raviv) — are conceived as inhabiting a single set. As that isn’t an easy option these days, Posner has filmed each of the play’s six actors in solitary. He then edited their images to materialize on a photo of a mock-up of the duplex apartment set.

The shuffling of the images relieves some of the visual tedium of Zoom theater — it does feel more like a show than a reading. Posner also understands how vital the play’s physical surroundings are to the spell the piece casts: To this rather downbeat Thanksgiving dinner, Brigid’s financially struggling parents (Sherri L. Edelen and Mitchell Hebért) have brought grandma Momo (Catie Flye), who is lost in dementia. Her confused outbursts, mingled with the strange apartment noises and flickering lights, are supposed to infuse the proceedings with an omnipresent dread, a sense of impending terror. But this artificial format can’t quite plumb that depth.

In dishy short spurts, Zoom can be a happy sit, as occurs when two veteran comic actors wrestle with the platform in a one-act like “Any Song.” Written and directed by Greg Germann — probably best known for his stint on “Ally McBeal” — this 16-minute Zoom play recounts the audition torture heaped on a journeyman actor played by Lee Wilkof, seen two years ago in the Kennedy Center’s revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Germann plays a self-regarding British director — you know the type — who arranges to speak to Wilkof’s Albert about a role in a new musical. But the call is based on a misunderstanding: Albert thinks the part is already his. The torment he undergoes is the nub of this terrific entry in the comedy of humiliation, the sort practiced on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and in priceless show business satires, such as Lisa Kudrow’s “The Comeback.”

Germann and Wilkof, who met as members of the original production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins,” have a bit of gleeful revenge here on all of those tyrants who revel in making actors feel like pawns on their casting chessboards. I’d certainly zoom back and watch the next installment.

The Institute for Counterfeit Memory, written and directed by Lola B. Pierson. $10-$70. theacmecorporation.org.

Incidental Moments of the Day, written and directed by Richard Nelson. theapplefamilyplays.com.

The Humans, by Stephen Karam, directed by Aaron Posner. $35 through Oct. 4. olneytheatre.org/thehumans.

Any Song, written and directed by Greg Germann. anysongproductions.com.

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