How many of us have sat around work, watching our colleagues act out one way or another, and thought, I should write a play about this? Lots. How many of us have followed through on that notion? Few. And that’s a good thing, because (a) most of us haven’t the talent and (b) what happens on the job seldom interests anybody else nearly as much as it interests us.
Anne Washburn is one of the few who followed through. Her 10 Out of 12 depicts what goes on at her job—specifically that part of it where a cast, crew, and director ready one of her scripts for performance. Running now at Theater Wit, it’s a show about a ten-hour tech rehearsal. (The title refers to the number of hours union actors are allowed to work during them.)
Nobody can say Washburn hasn’t the talent for the project. She’s the one who wrote Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which was deservedly a hit for Wit in 2015. This time around, however, she’s miscalculated the entertainment value of letting an audience bear witness as characters worry over hitting their marks in the dark, making a costume function correctly, and discussing the merits of Funyuns versus the other crap they eat. For two and a half hours. Some witty bits and a late-developing dramatic focus notwithstanding, 10 Out of 12 just isn’t all that interesting.
In a way, though, that’s the point. Keeping us on the edge of our seat doesn’t appear to be a priority with Washburn. Based on the little I’ve seen of her oeuvre so far, I’d say she cares less about telling a ripping yarn than about how that yarn gets unspooled and turned into warm metaphorical clothing over time. Take Mr. Burns. Set in a postapocalyptic America where the power grid is a thing of the past, it opens on a group of survivors gathered around a fire, keeping up morale by recounting the “Cape Feare” episode from The Simpsons. When we see them again, seven years later, they’ve formed a traveling theater company specializing in Simpsons episodes. After another 75 years, those episodes have become the basis for a kind of religion.
10 Out of 12 attempts to trace a similar evolution in a more constricted framework. Wearing the headsets hung on each seat, audience members can hear the lighting technician (Martha Lavey) work through cues, the sound guy (NPR’s Peter Sagal) go in search of less Germanic mood music, and the electricians (John Mahoney and Riley McIlveen) talk about food, at least until one of them cuts himself with his Exacto blade. The director (Shane Kenyon) maintains his weariness as a point of style while flip-flopping, perhaps also as a point of style: pulling effects he asked for only to put them back and pull them again. This actress (Christine Vrem-Ydstie) does a kind of hula, fascinated by the hypnotic undulation of her long Victorian skirt. That actor (Gregory Fenner) sticks close to his cell phone lest he miss his big break. A third (Stephen Walker)—the oldest of the bunch and something of a legend—tells everyone, “We’re not paid enough to do shoddy work.” The stage manager (Dado) fails to maintain a reasonable schedule.
All this is meant to lead to that moment of transcendence when the false starts, grungy details, and dysfunctional personalities coalesce into a work of stage art, much as the campfire “Cape Feare” coalesces into mythology. The show’s real director, Jeremy Wechsler, and designers Adam Veness (set) and Diane Fairchild (lighting) do their damnedest to make it happen, engineering a climax that might get you thinking you’re having A Chorus Line finale flashback.
But it doesn’t take. Unlike the struggles and strivings of the Chorus Line dancers, the punch list Washburn leads us through in 10 Out of 12 doesn’t build to much other than a respectful awareness of how dedicated, how excruciatingly meticulous you have to be to put on a professional-quality show. That’s an important lesson, of course. It’s just not a compelling one.
Not that the piece is all nuts and bolts. As I mentioned above, there’s funny banter as the disembodied techies riff into our headsets, and even a sort of through line involving the angry older actor, Paul. Trouble is, the banter feels random and the through line kicks in late. What’s more, Walker’s Paul comes off as more West End than Chicago, which is too bad: with the second wave of off-Loop theater artists coming into their AARP years, it wouldn’t hurt to see them lionized a little. v