When actor Erin Gann leans in and quietly says, “Totally between you and me…,” it’s hard not to believe that the conspiratorial secrets he’s about to share with me are in fact just that. There’s no one else to hear us, right? We are alone, together, in a box. But it is not an ordinary box. It’s a box of theater and he’s acting in a play by Will Eno. It’s one segment of a production from theater company, Theatre for One. Theatre for One is the brainchild of designer and artistic director Christine Jones (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) and involves a singular performer face-to-face with a singular audience member. Called I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am, it is made up of seven short plays commissioned for the company. These world premiere shorts are by leading American playwrights including Lynn Nottage, Craig Lucas, Will Eno, Thomas Bradshaw, José Rivera, Zayd Dohrn, and Emily Schwend. The shows are free, run for five minutes at a time, and are offered on a first-come-first-served basis from May 18th through June 6th. The box o’ theater conceived by Jones and designed by the architecture firm LO-TEK is a self-contained unit which will travel to three different locations around Manhattan starting off in the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, then Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, and ending up in midtown at the Grace Building Plaza.
I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am is a grab bag of emotions. For your five minute time slot, you never know what you might get but you’re sure to be taken on a swift and intense journey perhaps through love, grief, or theatrical expectations.
I experienced a musical piece called Love Song by Zayd Dohrn where teenage love and romantic heroism were on display; a hostile lunch date entitled Lizzy from José Rivera and carefully constructured awkwardness served up by the always hilarious Will Eno with Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings.
Perhaps it was the red padded walls of the theater box or the proximity to the performers or the chosen playwrights’ voices, but I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am formed an emotional echo chamber where all the performer’s emotions were amplified and directed at me. There is no other crowd to distill the message or divert the attention or the gaze of the performer. The one-on-one format can make the delivery of a writer’s words feel crafted just for you. Or you can find yourself feeling like a character in the piece.
For Love Song, I was enveloped by the ardent teenage crush as performed by actor/musician Kevin Mambo. As he was strumming a guitar and reenacting the fateful meet-cute between himself and the object of his affections, Danielle, it was impossible to not fall down the teenage dream rabbit hole with him. When he waved at me, I instinctively waved back. I could not pretend he could not see me. Dohrn’s play evokes more atmosphere than the others I saw with the voices of multiple characters delicately executed by Mambo and Mambo’s music which supplemented the writing.
Rivera’s Lizzy was far more pointed, with the character’s open hostility fixated first on me—the lunch guest who has disappointed her. But as the story progresses it becomes clear it’s not about me. In some ways it was the most conventional of the three pieces I saw and even though it was only five minutes my mind started to wander.
But it was Will Eno’s short that I could not shake. Between Eno’s charming, slippery writing and Gann’s puckish performance, I was hooked. Gann is playing an actor who is trying to perform a show but things are not quite as he thought they would be and it’s maybe going badly. After a particularly intense stare, he suggests our encounter is awkward. Did I make it awkward? Did he? I forget this is scripted and I panic. Did I break the show? Am I blushing or are the red walls reflecting on my cheeks. And I love this. I have become lost in it so quickly.
Eno pushes the form the most and starts to tear down the structure almost as soon as the play has begun. His play crawls inside your head and kicks things around while it’s in there. His storytelling is full of contradictions but with each push or pull he creates such beautiful tension in his characters – all that anxiety, awkwardness and tension spills back on the audience. I find his unsettled universe oddly comforting. We’re all sort of a mess there. Eno sends the audience out of Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings with more than a quick theatrical diversion. I’m left with a pounding heart and gratitude that resonates beyond the walls of the theater box and lasts well into the afternoon.
I guess all a great artist really needs is five minutes to change you.