Review: Connection, Interrupted, in ‘Communion’

Last March, I booked tickets to see “The Headlands,” a new play by Christopher Chen. A few days later, live theater vanished like some awful magic act. I never made it to that show. But now Chen, a high-concept playwright with a vertiginous approach to dramatic structure, has created a new one, “Communion,” a clever and chilly digital wisp produced by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and experienced on Zoom. To see it, as in-person performances prepare to return elsewhere, provides a dizzy kind of symmetry.

“Communion,” directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring Stacy Ross, begins as so many recent shows have. A house manager greets the audience (about 40 people on the night I attended), offering a brief tutorial on cameras and mics and gallery view. Then Ross, a beloved Bay Area performer, appears, speaking from what looks like a basement. A nice basement. Ross, wearing a blazer, pigtails and a shrunken porkpie hat, has through-the-roof charisma, even in a Zoom window. This helped during the pro forma opening monologue, a friendly acknowledgment of the limits and possibilities of remote theater. “I always thought it would be interesting to do a Zoom show that somehow really took advantage of this strange intimacy this platform has,” Ross said excitedly.

Like works by Will Eno and Lucas Hnath, Chen’s create a tension between the ideas at play — here, presence and absence, truth and lies, trust and manipulation — and the characters who inhabit them. There’s so much intelligence in “Communion,” enhanced by Ross’s mischievous performance and MacKinnon’s sleek direction. But the overall effect is somewhat stingy. It might have felt differently earlier in the pandemic. But at this point, most of us with working Wi-Fi have already thought plenty about presence and absence. I would trade the conceptualism for something more embracingly human.

In fairness, “Communion” offers that, too. Late in the show, an unseen force sorts the audience into breakout rooms, asking us to introduce ourselves and perhaps discuss one of the prompts Chen had emailed before the show — chiefly, “In one or two sentences, can you describe a guiding principle you have?” Awkwardly and then with more ease, we introduced ourselves. One man shared a guiding principle, often attributed to Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

The rest of us had no principles. Still, we reveled in one another’s company and in the experience of sharing a work of art together, even though we sat some 4,000 miles apart. (In this, it resembles the recent efforts of groups like 600 Highwaymen.) It made me nostalgic for all those taken-for-granted lobby nods, that post-show race around the corner to discuss the play at a safe distance, that feeling of constituting an audience.

“Communion” ends with a few conceptual switcheroos designed to make you question everything you have seen and heard. And I did. But these reveals dangle what people who love theater hunger for — connection, intimacy and yes, sure, communion — then snatch it back again, like Tantalus on a video call. Did you suspend your disbelief? Sucker.

I like my disbelief suspended. And if a year of seeing shows from my bedroom has taught me anything, it is that I will take theater where I can find it. Here, I’d locate it less in Chen’s forceful smarts and more in those halting, unscripted breakout room moments, in a grid of people marking time with good will and small talk until we can really, actually be together again.

Through June 27;

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