“The Burdens”

By Brian Pope

In The Burdens, Jane and Mordy Berman’s bond as siblings is only as strong as their network connection. She’s a working mother on one coast. He’s a starving artist on another. This makes it difficult for them to find the time or resources to see one another regularly. Luckily, as with just about everything else under the sun, when it comes to the care of (or removal of care from) aging, ailing relatives, there is an app for that.

The world premiere comedy by Matt Schatz, which just opened at City Theatre’s intimate Hamburg Studio, is a snapshot of a family saga engineered to appeal to millennials.

A play with an 80ish-minute runtime is sort of the equivalent of an endlessly replayable viral video clip. The script creates a safe space where the ups and downs of both a domestic life and of one lived independently are considered evenly with equal amounts of judgment. Even if you don’t have demanding Jewish family ties, the characters in this play are relatable because they communicate primarily through technological means.

They text. They email. They direct message. But do they really talk?

Yes, they do. On one hand, it’s a refreshing thing about this play and their relationship. They are very honest with one another. They share guarded secrets, dark desires, and dreams deferred in a way that you wish all siblings could. Mordy is among one of the first people Jane reveals her latest pregnancy to. His delight at becoming an uncle is sweet. Later, in a gesture of apology, Mordy shows some vulnerability by sending her footage of himself performing an original song he wrote (music and lyrics also courtesy of multi-hyphenate Mr. Schatz). The off-kilter charm of the ditty starts the healing process for the pair.

On the other hand, the way they communicate as witnessed from the point of view of an audience member is what prevents this particular millennial from clicking the like button on this particular production. The conceit of The Burdens, which is bolded, underlined, and italicized by the show’s marketing and theatrical design elements, is also starkly at odds with Mr. Schatz’s intermittently humorous writing and City’s returning Artistic Director Marc Masterson’s frustratingly static direction.

We see Catherine LaFrere (Jane) and Ben Rosenblatt (Mordy) literally occupying different spaces onstage. We understand that they are figuratively in different spaces (and time zones as it were) because when they’re talking to one another they’re usually addressing the audience. We learn what medium they’re using to communicate from a symbol projected on the wall above their heads: Facebook messenger’s comic book speech bubble, every email provider’s plain white envelope, etc.

What isn’t clear after the first 20 or so minutes of the performance is why the device (electronic and structural) is shoehorned into this play. Ms. LaFrere plays an escalating Autocorrect bit excellently, ratcheting up from repeated utterances of the mistaken word “ducking” to the hilarious explosion of the intended f-bomb. After that though, for all intents and purposes, Mordy and Jane could have been trading witticisms over a dinner table like they would be in a more traditional rendering of this kind of plot. None of the misspelling or rephrasing or emoji use that characterizes millennial digital syntax is woven into the dialogue.

It’s especially disappointing because one would think that the nature of their discussion over much of the course of the plot would call for the characters to think more about what they want to say or to lighten it up with tiny, detailed cartoons. Instead, the siblings trade only Eeyore-inflected “haha”s when they’d typically chuckle in one another’s actual presence.

Their over 100-year old Zad Zad (grandfather) is near death, but not near enough. He terrorizes everyone around him including Jane and Mordy’s own mother. Instead of dialing M for Murder, the Berman siblings consider dialing E for Expedite. Mr. Rosenblatt’s manic energy is at full wattage when a fateful visit with Zad Zad inspires a comedically inspired frantic call to Jane.

Andrew David Ostrowski’s fibre optic-esque lighting effects make it appear as if energy is coursing through Britton Mauk’s set, but the onstage world they create together is more like the depiction of the internet in the recent sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, only drained of all that vibrant environment’s character, specificity, and Disney product placement.

Unfortunately, Mr. Masterson’s stage pictures lack dynamism as well. It’s predictable when Jane repeatedly stands behind an upstage block to deliver a soliloquy or when Mordy jumps up on one to do the same. It’s tedious when they both fiddle around with props performing household chores to break up the monotony of their continuous dialogue. In the boxing match between the naturalistic dialogue and high concept premise of the play, Masterson is the ineffective referee.

The Burdens is an iPod Nano play written in an iPhone XR world. If the dialogue does not receive a serious software update, I fear that one day solid actors like LaFrere and Rosenblatt will be replaced by the likes of Siri and Alexa in order to fulfill the promise of the script’s premise.

The Burdens plays at City Theatre’s Hamburg Studio through May 12. For tickets and more information, click here.

Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.

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