stop. reset., Signature Theatre, New York – review

When dramatists ask questions about the future of technology, you can be sure that part of what they are addressing is their own relevance. If we live in a world in which image has trumped word, what’s the point of asking actors to stand in front of a live audience and recite text? In stop. reset., a new play written and directed by Regina Taylor at off-Broadway’s Signature, the production itself reflects the dilemma: futuristic projections bathe the stage, even as the six actors enact scenes of standard, even old-fashioned dialogue.

Taylor digs into so many themes, memory and obsolescence chief among them, that there was perhaps no way that this 100-minute evening would prove terribly coherent. But the play keeps prodding us to think in ways that are rewarding.

A fairly standard plot lurks behind all of Taylor’s gigabytes. It is winter in Chicago, complete with raging snowstorm, and the four remaining employees of Alexander Ames Chicago Black Book Publishers are fretting: one of them will soon be made redundant. They pledge solidarity, but scheme in interviews with the firm’s founder, 70-year-old Alexander Ames, to undermine the others’ chances for survival.

Ames is still reeling from the death of his son two years before, and can’t quite believe that technology has upended his business. Portrayed commandingly by Carl Lumbly, Ames laments, “Everything is moving so fast. I thought books would be spared.”

An employee named Chris has positioned himself as the company’s number two; Teagle F. Bougere plays him swaggeringly. But a young, jazzy janitor named J, the shaggy Ismael Cruz Cordova, worms his way into Ames’s distraught thought process. He takes Ames on a techno head trip, a future in which sensation has obliterated the written word utterly.

The employees’ interactions have the lightweight appeal of The Office: a scene in which the spectacular LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as a lesbian called Jan, returns with coffee is terrific, but speeches with awkward racial overtones by a longtime white worker named Tim did not seem credible. The discussions between Ames and J are the most resonant. When the former uses cultural detritus of his family unpacked by the latter – a vinyl LP, a record player, a mask – to form a son-like figure, the effect is haunting, even though the cumulative effect of stop. reset. is a bit muted.

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