It felt right to discover, as I sat down to see Preexisting Conditions, that the theater was stifling hot. A struggling air conditioner (which did kick in later on) is, if anything, the hallmark of daring downtown theater. Elyse Pitock’s play kicks off the third annual Corkscrew Festival, which focuses on new works by emerging artists, but Conditions is not nearly as daring as the temperature had suggested, though it’s not without its moments.
Pitock’s play follows Ophira (Brittany Annikka Liu), an underpaid, unfulfilled legal assistant struggling with chronic pain. Lacking proper health insurance, Ophira turns to a dystopic matchmaking startup called Artemis, which pairs successful businessman with singles in need of coverage. Ophira quickly regrets entering a six-month agreement with Trevor, who proves as cruel as he is dim-witted. But, as her pain worsens, she considers if marriage to a man she hates is her only option.
The premise is smart-sounding on paper, but wonky in practice. The rules of Pitock’s imagined near future are mostly vague, but for two required by the premise: people can now sign away their rights on an app, and full-time jobs no longer come with health insurance. As the world of the play otherwise feels like our own, these elements stick out as forced. Ophira could just as easily have poor coverage as none at all and the play would still work.
Meanwhile, Ophira’s scenes with Artemis’ soulless founder, Aubrey (Ariane Rinehart), just feel silly. It isn’t clear how Ophira would have direct access to the service’s founder, who apparently personally coordinates every single Artemis match. Though Justin Ahdoot is hilarious as Aubrey’s hapless assistant, Niko, the broad comedy of these scenes clashes bizarrely with the naturalism elsewhere.
Pitock hits on more interesting ideas when she focuses on Ophira’s pain. Chronic pain with no clear-cut diagnosis is a real issue, particularly for women, and Annikka Liu makes us feel Ophira’s discomfort. The scenes between her and a sympathetic doctor are particularly effective. Here Pitock captures a frustrating reality for the uninsured: when their condition is not straightforward, but instead will require several visits to properly diagnose, options prove few. Beyond the “issue,” though, these scenes also feel recognizably human. Ophira and the doctor are both doing their best. The people are human, but the system is not.
The grounded empathy of these scenes gets lost in the absurd machinations of Pitock’s plot, which also gets needlessly sidetracked on Ophira’s friendship with a co-worker. The final scenes drag on, and the happy conclusion is tonally baffling. The production is poorly paced and over-directed, with scene transitions that seem to last longer than the scenes themselves.
Still, there is something in Pitock’s focus on physical pain. In the moments when other characters are forced to drop their façades and acknowledge Ophira’s suffering, a window is opened–oh so briefly–on a little-seen world.