British playwright Laura Wade's play Other Hands, which opened at Actors Guild of Lexington on Thursday, is a smart, engaging commentary on the crippling effect of technology on the soft, human parts of our relationships and even though it was written in 2006, it already feels like a period piece.
When freelance IT guy Steve shows up to hopelessly untechnical Lydia's studio apartment to fix her computer, the 2004 e-machine desktop PC, with its hulkingly square, non-flat-screen monitor seems like an obsolete, bulky relic by now. The handheld PDA that his girlfriend Hayley clings to so feverishly that her hands stop working? Hilarious by Siri's standards.
The world as it looked just a few years ago is already bizarrely outdated to our smartphone-toting, tablet-swiping selves. But the tech specs of the recent past do not impede the message of Wade's script: Our capacity for kindness and simple acts of human connectedness are being threatened by over-reliance on technology, which increasingly allows us to disconnect from one another even while we are in the same room.
Marshall Manley makes a promising directorial debut at Actors Guild. Despite technology's relevance to the show's theme and plot, the production succeeds by making Wade's script about people, not things.
The thrust of the show centers on an almost-but-not-quite love quadrangle. Long-term couple Hayley and Steve are in a long-term rut, punctuated by the utterly drab decor of their apartment in Eric Seale's set design. Do they really love each other? Or are they just numbed and placated by the routine of togetherness?
Seale also stars as Steve, a technophile who prefers the company of his Xbox to real people. Seale effectively conveys how Steve is shaken out of his perpetual video game stare by Lydia (Kathryn Newquist), an ebullient, kind and funny woman with a penchant for the human touch.
She likes tea poured from a teapot made with teabags, not a machine. She instinctively knows when people need hugs. She'll make you dinner when your hands stop working. Despite her gentle, quirky charm, she was recently sacked from her job by Steve's girlfriend, Hayley (Meaghan Sharrard), who consults businesses on maximizing workplace efficiency.
Hayley is tempted to break her work-life monotony by having an affair with work associate Greg (Spencer McGuire).
On the surface, the stakes are not so high. Will this couple stay together or be pulled apart? But under the surface, it's about whether we can effectively relate to anyone at all.
Newquist and Sharrard are particularly compelling in their different ways of grappling for human connection. Newquist's Lydia is an warm and vibrant presence on stage, but her social awkwardness is not so much cute (although it is) as an indication of her unique predicament: It's no longer natural to act natural, and because she alone seems immune to technology's zombification effect, she isn't sure how to act around people anymore.
Sharrard questions the lack of "tingle" in her life by outrageous flirting up to and just near the point of crossing the line in a scintillating scene with McGuire.
Wade's linguistic Britishisms cannot be escaped, so the small ensemble adopts British accents throughout — with mixed-success. Newquist and Sharrard sharply maintained their accents at Thursday's opening performance, but Seale and Spencer dropped them with regularity.
American audiences, used to overwrought happy endings, might be perturbed at the subtlety of Wade's finale, but I found it a refreshing gesture of hope for building authentic connections.