Eclipse Theatre Company

An Interest in Strangers doesn’t ease its audience in–it hits them with the experience it seeks to create almost from the moment they sit down. No sooner have people gotten comfortable and begun to scan the program than the play’s two lead characters, a pair of sweetly smiling media clones, gently but insistently move into the audience to interview them one by one, asking about their TV-watching habits, recent political choices, and other data designed to produce a quick demographic snapshot.

The results of this survey are revealed near the end of the intermissionless 75-minute show. Of course they’re as meaningless as such statistics always are, reflective of “trends” artificially deduced by assessing a random assortment of people–whoever attended the show that particular night. This is information for information’s sake, compiled to use up time and delivered to divert, not enlighten. Television in a nutshell, in other words.

Developed between 1981 and 1983 by Milwaukee’s Theatre X under the guidance of John Schneider, An Interest in Strangers is concerned with America in the age of communications overkill, when people are so inundated with news from around the world that they’ve lost the ability to respond to it. In this world everything is fodder for the marketplace, and the noise of the global marketplace deafens us to our own inner voices. It’s a world that’s only gotten worse in the decade since the play premiered.

In An Interest in Strangers a group of human beings are desperate to reach out and touch someone, but unable to do it person to person they’re forced to settle for the sensory stimulation of the video screen and the impersonal truth of the airwaves. Their anxious encounters are depicted in a series of strange and sometimes funny vignettes, assembled in the choppy, nonlinear style of a video documentary; this jagged, jarring style purports to illuminate substance but instead overwhelms it.

This strategy, which is frustrating but thought-provoking for the audience, begins in the play’s first moments, when a TV commentator named Lily fixes us in her gaze and launches a discourse on television’s innately disturbing effect on the cognitive process. The issue isn’t content, she starts to explain–“sex and violence” aren’t the problems with TV, the medium itself is the problem, for under the guise of disseminating knowledge it breeds apathetic nonresponsiveness. Her points are important, but before she can state them clearly she’s interrupted by Harry, the very producer who has arranged for her appearance. “You have so many talents,” he coos to Lily–who accordingly drops her seriousness for a simpy, soothing warmth. She’ll later use this telegenic approach when she wanders out of the TV screen and into Harry’s living room to pass the time with his wife Faith, who spends her days at home writing pornographic fantasies in her diary and dreaming of her husband’s death.

Juxtaposed with the gradual disintegration of Harry and Faith’s marriage and the steady corruption of Lily from purveyor of logic to trivial media goddess is the spiritual crisis of Michael, an anchorman who finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the wave upon wave of horror he must report nightly. From cool, calm dispenser of facts, Michael becomes a spiritual seeker and finally a terrorist, moved not by any specific ideology but by the need to act. And every surreal stage of the characters’ devolution is captured, of course, on video by an insatiable camerawoman, who frames the action for us in clear, concise images that beam from overhead monitors.

Emphasizing TV’s fascination with human interest and current events at the expense of comprehensibility, An Interest in Strangers offers an incomplete critique of the most central and most disturbing component of our public life. For example, it doesn’t look at commercials or kids’ shows–probably the medium’s most insidious elements, with their systematic though unintentional undermining of viewers’ faith in authority figures. Seeking to avoid the lampoons of TV that fill so many comedy shows, An Interest in Strangers instead elusively but poignantly considers the loneliness and emptiness that make people rely on the false feel-good connection offered by the tube.

Directed rather stolidly by James Ostholthoff, Eclipse Theatre’s production features competent performances, highlighted by stylish and expressive V.A. Hamilton as Lily, who evolves from a no-nonsense newswoman into a teasing chanteuse in the name of giving the public what it wants. Scott Haven and Casey Cooper are Harry and Faith, locked in a test-pattern marriage and unable to face that fact; and Beth Bogdon is the picture of a relentless camera operator, dogging everyone with obsessive determination.