Neil Brewer, Cara McHugh, & Jane Mattingly in Just Like Life.
Photo-The Bard’s Town
Just Like Life
By Doug Schutte
Directed by Scot Atkinson
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2014 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
For those of us old enough to remember a time before the internet, before cell phones, and before the advent of social media, Doug Schutte’s Just Like Life strikes a chord of recognition: we get all the jokes. A freewheeling satire on our total absorption with our digital identity at the expense of real human contact, it has a lot of fun making some rather obvious, albeit still worthwhile, points.
Or perhaps they only seem obvious to people over 30. The story of Richard Van Winkle (played by Mr. Schutte himself) waking up after a 20-year nap (get it?) to find his wife, son, and friends all enraptured by digital communication underscores the shockingly rapid rise of such technology and how easily we relinquish personal privacy and the warmth of human relationships. I’m old enough to remember cell phones the size of a large shoe: a time when it was commonplace to communicate in more than 140 characters.
Van Winkle is portrayed as a perpetually stoned good-for-nothing who isn’t terribly missed by his wife Dana (April Singer), or friends Steve “The Queen” McArnold (Ryan Watson) or Frances “The Fryer” Tyler (Jeremy Sapp). He returns to find a son, RJ (Neil Brewer) with a potential attachment looming to Julie Stich (Jane Mattingly). Each and every character can barely put their smart phone away long enough to hold a genuine conversation.
All of this might sound pretty mundane, but Schutte’s attention to character detail puts enough spin on the ball and, more importantly, the play is given a multi-layered presentation in which the action is narrated by Charlotte Berners as it moves into the realm of reality TV show. As played with ferocious energy and razor-sharp timing by Cara McHugh, Charlotte is shallow, vapid, narcissistic and a potent reflection of everything wrong with digital self-absorption. Ms. McHugh has proven herself an actor capable of crafting characters of depth and subtlety, but here we witness her create a modern-day monster through dazzling technique, one that is all-to-familiar to us.
The rapid-fire, machine-gun pace of the script, with its choppy scene construction, reflects the miniscule attention span of a generation raised with the comfort of electronic devices, and each act clocks in at approximately 40 minutes. A clever use of video commercials and screen captures of social media helps stitch the action together while simultaneously underscoring the intentionally disjointed quality of the script.
As funny and engaging as Just Like Life is, there is little substance, and that also underscores the play’s themes. The playwright does supply one rather pedantic speech just so we don’t miss the point, but it says nothing that hasn’t been communicated more effectively by what has come before. Some of the devices start to feel a bit worn and repetitive towards the end, but the energy of the cast takes on a fierce quality that pushes past such moments and barely allows the flaws to register. Jane Mattingly has some particularly nice moments with her soft-spoken, comically mumbled dialogue, and Ryan Watson injects his customary comic virtuosity playing two roles. Jeremy Sapp is daringly ridiculous as a man punished with an ankle device that causes him to suffer severe electric shock when he comes too close to any digital device (one of the over-used bits of business).
It feels like an extended sketch from Second City, and is shot through with enough smart jokes that it might resonate more than most improv-based comedy. The company attacks the material with an ambition that opening night didn’t quite realize, but which seems within easy reach now that it has been exposed to an audience. I doubt it will do anything to change things, but it is entertaining enough to give one hope that our fundamental humanity will survive.
Just Like Life
November 6-16, 2014 @ 7:30pm
Tickets $15 ($12 for students/seniors), and available in advance at thebardstown.com
The Bards Town Theater
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]