The Homebound Project, serving up fresh theatrical food for thought while raising money for the charity No Kid Hungry, is a welcome addition to the online theater landscape.
Available to view for a small donation (free viewings are available to first responders and essential workers), this series of short new works by many of the brightest playwrights in New York theater and starring actors of stage and screen, centers its second edition of plays around the word “Sustenance.”
Meanwhile, many of the places that feed us creatively are shuttered as well. I’m a director and writer who often went to the theater four nights a week before the pandemic. I crave the days where being within spitting distance from a performer was exciting, instead of potentially life-threatening.
One thing I’ve had to overcome with many of my early forays into digital theater is the unwelcome taste of a dish I didn’t set out to order. But these online experiments serve vital purposes: to bring people together creatively, to discover new possibilities for performance in this moment without live theater, and to remind us of the things that moved us about theater in the first place.
With 11 bite-sized shorts, the Homebound Project has the feel of a buffet: plenty of offerings with something for most. Survey enough of the options, and you’ll likely find work worth sinking your teeth into.
Anne Washburn’s play Comfort Food sets off the evening with the feeling of a prayer. Actor Ngozi Anyanwu lights a candle in a dark room before offering an ode to rage as a source of sustenance: “Rage is light, rage is life, rage is joy; rage sustains me, and will carry me forward and carry us all through this weird thorny present and into a slightly better (although still in a thousand ways inconvenient and annoying) future.”
Thinking about it today, Comfort Food retroactively has the feel of a requiem to Larry Kramer’s anger-fueled political theater. While I found myself resisting the piece’s topical discussion of sourdough starter, I appreciated the acts of lighting and then blowing out a candle on screen, giving it a neat, ritualistic bookend to the piece.
A simple structure was helpful for processing the many shorts that come flying at you in quick succession. Whether it was styled as an Instagram livestream or a phone call with a friend, offering a clearly-articulated container enabled my brain to stay focused on many of these new pieces. Let’s face it: watching theater online is a battle with your screen for attention. The added challenge with a series of shorts is that each new work has to start from scratch to earn your focus.
Ultimately, the pieces that hooked me provided a voyeuristic sense of intimacy and compelling charisma. For example, Brittany K. Allen’s Zoom on Toast, charmingly performed by Christopher Oscar Peña, welcomed us into a Zoom wedding celebration.
As Peña, reading from a kitchen, toasted his unseen friend “Butterbean” for “how slutty you are with your heart,” I felt like I was eavesdropping on people who had loved one another for many years. Peña, underplaying nicely, captures the loneliness of being apart from a best friend on their special day next to the joy of celebrating their milestone.
In Notes Towards Godliness by Will Arbery, Nicholas Braun plays Erik, an unsettled young man broadcasting a livestream about why he chooses to swear off his family. By denying family, Erik posits, “we can achieve a future godliness, on this earth, in this time.” How? By rejecting love. “Love is painful and weak and the knowledge, the certainty, of loss is paralyzing, it’s paralyzing, and it doesn’t feed me, it gives me nothing, all it does is take and take and take—”
Danya Taymor’s direction has Braun lean into his camera, directly staring at the audience from a close angle to discomfiting effect. Arbery finds a neat quarantine workaround to bring Braun scene partners by having Erik play a voicemail from his father and read aloud a text he receives during the livestream from his mother.
I could watch as Erik listens to his father’s pained voicemail all day, his wide grin so disproportionate to the father’s plea “to hear anything at all” from him. Braun is marvelous at hiding hurt under a puppy dog face, making it all the more exciting to see his façade crack. By the time Erik’s mother texts that she is watching his livestream and wishes him joy, the damage is done and Erik shuts down the webcast.
The highlight of the show for me, though, was Hari Nef in Ngozi Anyanwu’s HERE IS GOOD. Performed predominantly in the dark underneath a blanket, Anyanwu’s piece has the feel of a naughty adult sleepover: all giggles and murmured come-ons.
Nef is hypnotic in the piece, using an ASMR-level whisper that had me glued to the screen. I gave a spit take as she cooed “I feel like a kid/Like a sexy kid/Like a sexy seductive kid/Which might be inappropriate/But also accurate.” Here was something so private, so committed, so goofy, I couldn’t believe she was saying it on screen for me to see.
When Nef said, “Perfection is not something you should strive for/But it is perfection under here,” I agreed: five short minutes spent with her in this delightfully fizzy piece was the perfect place to be.
The third edition of The Homebound Project based on the prompt “Champions” will run June 3–7, with a fourth series on June 24-28.