During these grim days of empty stages and social cages, theater groups are scrambling to generate online content to appease their fans. We’ve witnessed an explosion of videos of Broadway shows, podcasts, mini-concerts, variety programs, and more, many doubling as benefits for performers laid low by the COVID crisis.
Most offerings are drawn from familiar crowd-pleasers. A few weeks ago, Michael Urie reprised his knockout role in “Buyer & Cellar” on Broadway.com. Later this month, the National Theatre at Home will stream the critically acclaimed 2014 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on its YouTube channel.
Now a second wave of online fare is emerging, as playwrights create fresh works that deal directly with the pandemic.
“Closing the Distance,” courtesy of the Audio Drama Initiative, is a bold, captivating podcast series addressing the need to cope with the chasms that have opened up between loved ones as we are forced to shelter in place.
Co-written by New York Times bestselling authors Tawni O’Dell and Lou Aronica, the series consists of 10 short monologues starring supremely talented actors. Tony Award-winning Mitchell Maxwell directs.
Infused with wit and pathos, the series showcases frank stories about real folks grappling with the new normal.
“These stories aren’t political, or sensationalized, or overly sentimental,” said O’Dell. “They’re about regular people dealing with the fear, frustration, and loneliness we’re all feeling right now, and they do it with humor and optimism.”
In the first episode, “Neutral Corners,” performed by Internet sensation Sam Tsui, ex-boyfriends navigate quarantine in their tiny West Village studio apartment, roughly the size of a boxing ring. The couple had called it quits after three years, once they realized they no longer shared common goals. At first they keep to their respective corners, but as the days wear on, they manage to reach a detente of sorts.
Faced with the challenges of working remotely and staying healthy, on top of unpacking veritable steamer trunks of emotional baggage, will they somehow find a way to reconnect?
Aronica was inspired to write the piece after realizing that not everyone has a stable domestic life.
“I’m lucky enough to be sheltering in place with my loved ones,” he says in an intro to the piece. “I have people I care about, people I want to spend time with right here in my home… But I know several people who are not in that situation, people who are discovering tensions in their relationships they didn’t know they had… They [have] no choice but to confront the reality of their relationship.”
Episode Two, “Being Seen,” finds an aging trophy wife (played by the iconic Kathleen Turner) who comes to grips with staying hidden in her eight-bedroom mansion with her husband. This wealthy socialite binges on Reese’s Pieces ice cream while texting pictures of her “corona belly” to friends, much to her chagrin. Once her elderly husband lands in the hospital, she realizes no amount of makeup can make things right.
O’Dell believes that one of the pandemic’s toughest challenges is simply the lack of contact with others.
“We humans are social animals, we like going out, we like being seen,” she said. “When I began to think about a character who would have passionate views about our current loss of mingling and manicures, I chose the stereotype of youth and vanity, the trophy wife. But this isn’t just any trophy wife… she’s smart and complicated. She’s funny, she’s loving… she struggles with the frustration, the fear, and the heartbreak of not being seen.”
Episode Three stars William Hurt as a divorced father striving to reconnect with an estranged daughter. Upcoming episodes feature Kelli O’Hara as the mother of a four-year-old trying to keep it together while her husband is overseas, and Jason Alexander as a fiercely independent writer who lives alone and unravels after misplacing his reading glasses.
“Closing the Distance” showcases an original song by Tsui and his husband, Casey Breves. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Actors Fund and Save Indie Bookstores, two charities close to the hearts of the creative team.
What makes these monologues resonate so poignantly is their sense of immediacy and honesty through specificity. Despite the sadness, essential relationships are not only sustained but renewed. Strangely enough, these plaintive tales offer a soothing balm in these turbulent times.
One advantage of podcasts over live theater is the ability to access again and again. I recommend listening to each episode three times for maximum affect.
CLOSING THE DISTANCE | The Audio Drama Initiative | audiodramainitiative.com | Series of 10 podcasts, released intermittently, 10-15 mins each
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