Oblivion toward the less fortunate, lack of reproductive freedom, and rationing of medical care are just some of the timely themes of Ann Marie Healy's thoughtful new satire, "What Once We Felt," premiering off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd.
Set in a future of dwindling optimism _ and a world oddly without men _ the play follows a writer's baffling journey through the deceptive world of publishing as her just-completed novel is scheduled to become the last printed book on Earth.
Everything in this "digitized" world is meant to be downloaded and not just books. Even reproduction involves official, strictly government-run "downloads." Babies and all medical care are forbidden to members of the genetically inferior lower class, dismissively called Tradepacks. Ironically, the ominous totalitarian forces are female, apparently a matriarchy gone mad, and technology is a government tool put to increasingly diabolical uses.
The story unfolds smoothly under the brisk direction of Ken Rus Schmoll. Novelist Macy (Mia Barron), a naive hothead who lives in a privileged bubble like most of the elite Keeper class, cares only about getting her book published so people can read it.
Macy's peppy agent, Astrid (a charmingly funny portrayal by Ellen Parker), urges her to go along with the system in order to get her book published. Astrid even proposes a dangerous, Orwellian bargain with powerhouse publisher Claire Monsoon, which Macy heedlessly accepts, because the book is her baby and she's desperate to get it out there.
Barron wears an amusingly perplexed expression as she stumbles through the editing and publication process, feeling control of her work slipping away. Monsoon, her cool and pragmatic publisher (a deft portrayal by Opal Alladin), and her crafty editor, Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake), both use her for their own agendas.
Blake is airily perfect as smooth-talking Laura. Friendly at first, she gradually subverts the original purpose of Macy's novel, revealing too late her intent to "do away with all the cognitive spaghetti of reading." Lynn Hawley is memorable as Cheryl, a robotic Tradepack clerk driven to a horrible act of desperation, her face set in a glum mask as she represses all feeling.
Healy's witty, double-edged dialogue is laced with publishing industry humor as well as oblique references to disintegrating societal humanity. Parallel plotlines show the desperation of Keepers and Tradepacks alike regarding the baby allocation, while Tradepacks seem to be rapidly disappearing in a government -sponsored process called "the Transition."
Eerie sound design by Leah Gelpe and lighting by Japhy Weideman complement the elegant simplicity of Kris Stone's smoothly functional set.
"What Once We Felt," will resonate as a cautionary tale with fans of freedom as well as fans of books. Part of Lincoln Center's emerging artists initiative, LCT3, it's playing a limited engagement through Nov. 21.
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