Time travel. It’s such a promising stage subject, why haven’t playwrights tackled it more? A chance to compare and contrast eras and attitudes, to explore the progress we’ve made and what we’ve lost. Debra Whitfield’s little comedy Tech Support attempts all of the above, throwing in some #MeToo concerns and pointed observations about our inability to keep up with the galloping pace of technological change. It’s a friendly, well-meaning effort. And it’s frustratingly low-impact.
Start with the set by Natalie Taylor Hart, which doesn’t look like the Lower Manhattan studio apartment it’s supposed to be. Here, Pamela (Margot White) is having a rotten day. Her divorce papers just arrived, her new espresso machine is acting up, and her printer isn’t printing the labels she needs for her antique-book business. To fix the latter, she calls tech support (cue some easy “your average wait time is” jokes), commiserates with the Indian on the line (cue some easy outsourcing jokes), and wishes devoutly for a simpler, quieter, less tech-dependent existence. And bam, through some stage business that’s never fully explained, she’s transported to 1919.
And what a gentle, appealing place it is. Pamela’s apartment is now part of a boarding house, two bucks a week with meals, run by the avuncular Charlie (Mark Lotito) and brimming with kind tenants. Maisie (Leanne Cabrera) and Grace (Lauriel Friedman) are ardent suffragettes striving to get the 19th Amendment passed; Chip (Ryan Avalos) dotes on the ladies and shakes a wicked foxtrot leg. But Whitfield introduces some errors here that will follow her through time. Aside from their unfamiliarity with terms like “Xanax” and “virtual reality,” the other characters talk exactly like Pamela; Whitfield hasn’t addressed the changes in speech a century brings. Moreover, despite what to them would be her very peculiar behavior, they welcome Pamela, inviting her to live there for free and blithely ignoring her strange notions of gender roles. There are some cute gags (Pamela’s enthusiastic thirst for Coca-Cola, which was in fact laced with cocaine) as well as some vaudeville-musty ones (Charlie, limping with a war wound: “Walk this way”; exit Pamela, limping). Even for a fantasy, though, the proceedings strain credibility, and that goes double when Pamela is whisked to 1946.
The language, again, is not altogether of period, nor are the plot developments of 27 years altogether logical. Charlie still runs the boarding house; he married Grace, now a civil servant devoted to (was this even a term then?) affordable housing; and Chip’s son, when not rushing to the latest Betty Grable picture, works for her. Once more, enter Pamela sporting out-of-period dress and bizarre ideas, and the gang loves her. Chip Jr. even romances her, and she may be about to accept his proposal when she’s briefly transported to 1978.
Grace—she’d have to be at least 80—is running for president, Chip Jr. has grown bitter and pasted on some terrible sideburns to age 32 years, “Stayin’ Alive” is playing on the 8-track, and Lotito has essentially turned into Dabney Coleman in 9 to 5. Janice O’Donnell’s costumes are at their most vivid here, but it’s a short visit serving mainly to teach Pamela that, surprise, it’s not what year you live in that counts, it’s who’s in your life and how you treat them. Flash, and there’s a time-travel happy ending, but it’s so tacked-on and uncertainly staged that you may not get precisely what’s going on.
The script of Tech Support reads better than it plays. Much of the blame goes, one suspects, to Whitfield’s director—herself. She manages time transitions awkwardly (Elliott Forrest’s impressionistic projections and Deborah Constantine’s gaudy lighting are no help), and the actors, likable folk all, don’t sufficiently vary characterizations from era to era. White, game and spirited, doesn’t entirely convey the bafflement and panic a person in Pamela’s position might feel, but then, Whitfield hasn’t given her the lines.
Tech Support isn’t a bad night out—it’s a brisk 85 minutes, populated almost entirely by nice people, and nostalgia buffs will enjoy the changes of costume, music, and cultural references. Whitfield doesn’t get all of the latter right, though (for instance, Vernon Castle was dead by 1919), and if she has a larger statement to make about technology, happiness, or sexual roles, it’s muffled. Do many of us feel cowed by tech, and do we often look fondly to the good old analog days? Sure. That’s not quite enough to sustain a play.
Tech Support runs through Sept. 21 at 59 E 59 Theater C 59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit 59e59.org.