Work Hard Have Fun Make History is a play about prophets and profits, humans and machines. Some writers try too hard to be clever, but playwright ruth tang ‘s efforts to reframe, unsettle, and toy with us through language, image, and setting look effortless in this frantic and funny offering from Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series.
With a cast of three non-binary performers playing myriad roles in rapid-fire scenes, we leap from chaperoned phone sex to phone customer service (someone received their dead husband in a box rather than a charging cable), to two “mavericks” of original thought, Elon (b) and Jeff (Sagan Chen), thinking about how to rebuild the world after some sort of catastrophe.
tang explores machines and humanity, bodies and processes, pregnancy, parenting, sex, relationships, death, and resets (mechanical, human, and societal).
In Caitlin Sullivan’s production, underlying everything, is the transactional and capitalistic. It feels like no one stops working or moving as they are trying to also live their life. As some of these conversations take place off-stage, on stage we watch a warehouse worker piling up boxes in an automated fashion. Characters are packing and unpacking boxes (so many bananas) or putting together a table while talking on the phone. The grind is forever.
Interstitial sound design and flashes of light tubes signal scene changes. These squelchy, radio frequency spins of the dial, land us, lights up, in a new scenario, often with new characters.
With these leaps, however, some scenes are a little unclear as to context and place (though there is an intentional sense of absurdity throughout). Some characters return in later scenes but we don’t know their names so it’s less apparent on stage than it is in reading the script. But it’s not enough to derail the show which is still full of interesting ideas and terrific performances.
tang distills our impulses and desires and how they manifest in our increasingly automated and online world. For one scene, Left (Susannah Perkins) is trying to buy something from Right (b). Left’s desperation for the object meets Right’s deeply rooted pleasure in the competition for online bidding.
As Right says, “The whole reason I sell on this site is the contests, my heart rate goes up when they start bidding, start fighting for the thing that I have, and for the length of the auction I am being fought over and that is what keeps me alive.” The collapse between transaction and self, object and human becomes part of tang’s examination.
Never mind the object being bid on is a police baton covered in blood. Or maybe that is indeed exactly part of the point. There is a sly political undertone here too.
In another scene, a machine (b) and a human (Chen) have a workplace frisson, bordering on flirting. But the machine says “Ask me the questions then. I want to be respected by society.”
The questions are CAPTCHAs and the machine gets increasingly frustrated it is unable to pass the Turing test by identifying cows, traffic lights, and road signs. The machine’s desperate effort to describe what a cow is, is particularly funny. And it is not a little heartbreaking to see the machine get so flummoxed.
The cast brings out the humor in tang’s work with nuanced charm. When a couple is on the brink of breaking up, b, as Go, says “You’re all I think about babe,” with the least convincing distracted air of a partner who has long stopped listening but one hoping not to be caught out.
Later, when Jeff is enthusiastically expounding on some nonsense, his office chair rolls over some bubble wrap which makes a farty sound. b as Elon gives a childish chuckle and I could not tell if that was planned or ad-lib such was b’s complete embodiment of their stoner-y, man-child Elon.
Perkins ends up with some of the more overtly melancholy characters. They breathe wonderous life into pregnant pauses in the script leaving us to wonder what burdens they carry and what is going on in these characters’ minds.
Chen (who I had seen before in Happy Life) is wonderful as both a literal baby and a Jeff Bezos-style one. As the disgruntled young child trying to feel their way forward to a good day, Chen delivers their disappointment with serious, unironic ennui. Shaking and shimmying, they say, “Erp Nope It was just a burp that I mistook for exuberance.” A great line but with even better delivery. Jeff is the motor-mouth to Elon’s laconic style and Chen taps into more of a teenage short-fused energy for this.
I started to wonder why I was enjoying the Jeff/Elon scenes. Chen and b were a delightful, duo as two schmos blindly exploring their “entrepreneurial” mind palaces without a single look back at the real world. But more importantly they are not cartoons. tang imagines a backstory for each and a unique personality. So while we can laugh when Jeff says with outraged fury “buying is the same as making” to justify himself and his actions, we can also be deeply sad that he really thinks that is true.