Liza Birkenmeier’s short play, Honestly Sincere, reminded me of every sweaty-handed phone call I made in elementary school and junior high (…ok maybe all the way through college).
Birkenmeier’s entire play is phone-based. From this small white box theater, Joshua William Gelb portrays Greta, a 13-year-old girl with unauthorized access to her mother’s cellphone who is negotiating teen crushes, discussions of “s-e-x-ual” feelings” with her peers, and the unrelenting attraction to a “cool” girl.
Gelb is the only on-screen performer and the director. The show is filmed in Gelb’s apartment closet which he and his co-creative director, Katie Rose McLaughlin (who choreographs and associate directs this production), have converted into a frequently-occupied pandemic stage called Theater in Quarantine. While the performances are livestreamed, they are also preserved for future viewing on YouTube. This was my first TIQ show.
When I was young, dialing into the great unknown felt epic and dangerous. What if the boy you wanted to talk to answered? What if he didn’t. What if someone’s parent answered the phone and then you had to TALK TO THEM.
During these years, my best friend and I would somehow just “watch TV together” while on the phone. Staying quiet during the show and only chatting during commercials, driving my mother nuts that we were on the phone all night long.
But there is an intimacy to phones that is lost in text. This play brings out so much of the unspoken emotion and intention in the silence and breathing between two people on a call.
Between school plays and school dances, Birkenmeier captures those aimless, ponderous phone conversations between teen friends covering parents, homework, school gossip, that say everything and nothing. It’s a time when language cannot seem to catch up to feelings. There’s so much stuffed into the subtext.
Here, the image of the closet space on-screen is often framed as part of a bulletin board collage (visual design by Sara C. Walsh, video design by Gelb). So, the whole endeavor becomes another nostalgic bit of your teen past pinned to a wall and yellowing in your parent’s house alongside old concert tickets, pictures of musicals, and clippings from magazines.
Magazines, collages, and phone calls are relics from another era. Ooof, I had so many magazines. Reading Seventeen magazine as a 13-year-old felt like a portal into teenagedom—so mysterious and scary.
Greta is described as someone who marches to the beat of her own drummer. “You don’t care what other people think,” her friend says. Though Greta disagrees. Yet, she is not shy about saying she wanted to play Albert—the male adult lead— in Bye, Bye Birdie. She unleashes some deep philosophical moments amidst the more quotidian: “What even is gender but a violent scale of intended seriousness,” she wonders.
Greta boldly announces to her friend that she is going to get Ethan Blum to invite her to a school dance. Her friend responds that “he’s probably gay.” But this is really a ruse for Greta to call Ethan’s house so she can speak to Ethan’s mysterious older sister Sabel.
Throughout the play, Gelb is dressed as a 1960s salesman with his fedora and briefcase. Gelb—as Greta—does a tap number to “Put on a Happy Face” in the middle of the play—a physical rendering of dialing the phone to the enigmatic Sabel.
This is a big moment for her, one that calls for a dance break. Here, it looks like an homage to the romantic buoyancy and gravity-defying Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding.
But is this stereotypical media image of a salesman—how Greta sees herself? Is this her playing dress-up? Is this her exploring her identity? At 13, it could be all of this or none of this. She is hiding in a closet to execute her secret phone call plans—and can a closet ever just be a closet?
No matter. My heart was pounding as Greta sets her quest in motion with a simple goal of getting smoothies with Sabel at the mall. By the end of this call, I too was half in love with Sabel and rooting for this all to work out.
Gelb makes a compelling teen girl on screen—intense and philosophical, confident and tentative, overwhelmed and bold. Teen actors voice the rest of the young characters. Their lightness and inflections really brought out some beautiful grace notes in Birkenmeier’s sly script. Remi Elberg’s reading of “That’s uber interesting” will linger in my head for days. And I had a deep appreciation for Alexander Bello as Ethan threatening “Never say that again or I will have to throw myself down a large staircase and break every bone in front of you in a horrifying way.”
Gelb, McLaughlin and Birkenmeier deliver scarily accurate time travel to those awkward teen years and I was glad for the trip, but happy to return home to my awkward adulthood.