Do you prefer a play to be entertaining or informative? Realistic or abstract? Would you be more likely to go see a play set in a ballpark, in outer space or at a cafe? These are some of the questions posed to 2,000-plus survey participants by Greg Allen and his experimental Chicago troupe the Neo-Futurists.
Do you prefer a play to be entertaining or informative? Realistic or abstract? Would you be more likely to go see a play set in a ballpark, in outer space or at a cafe? These are some of the questions posed to 2,000-plus survey participants by Greg Allen and his experimental Chicago troupe the Neo-Futurists. The results inform the two short works of “You Asked for It!” jokingly representing America’s most and least wanted plays. The elongated, self-indulgent sketches don’t live up to the ingenious notion behind them, but they don’t completely diminish the potency of the concept, either.
It says perhaps all you really need to know that the most uninhibited, undeniably entertaining part of the show is neither the least wanted nor the most wanted play but the PowerPoint presentation that precedes them. The voiceover narration and commentary on the results of the highly unscientific survey cleverly, if indirectly, mock the way feedback metrics pervade our culture, from product-marketing surveys to political polls and questionnaires promising to match ideal mates.
In this case, so much is rigged from the start. The email survey participants themselves were mostly extended friends and family of the Neos, and the sample overwhelmingly comprised artists and educators. And the questions weren’t exactly fair ones. Do playwrights or audiences really make a stark choice between the entertaining and the informative? And isn’t asking whether the audience wants food prepared, eaten or thrown a bit … well, leading?
Despite, or perhaps because of, the contrivances, there’s a plethora of both humor and insight to be found in the way in which conclusions are reached in this seemingly objective manner that isn’t objective at all. The presenters even manage to crunch the numbers so cleverly that they determine the Neo-Futurists are more popular than Shakespeare.Following the intro, the least wanted play comes first, incorporating characters people apparently don’t want to see (a threatening doctor, an idiotic boss, a heroic alien, an evil royal), in a show set in an opera (even less popular than a ballpark), where the climax comes at the beginning and offstage. The characters watch a play, with music from Andrew Lloyd Webber (the least wanted author, natch) occasionally becoming audible.
This least wanted work ends up far more appealing than the most wanted one, which involves an eccentric artist, a clever fool, the ordinary undead and an inspiring God (it was one of the great contradictions of the survey that people want a secular play featuring the Almighty). This most wanted play falls flat despite the survey’s demand that the aud be made to feel exhilarated.
It was writer-director Allen who came up with the Neo’s signature piece, “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” Chicago’s longest-running show, playing now for more than 18 years. In that show, four performers try to fit 30 short plays into 60 minutes, with a random number of plays being switched out for new ones each week.
On the surface it seems that the “You Asked for It!” concept could be similarly sustained, if that were the desire, but there’s no evidence Allen seeks that end. Instead, he provides two fixed, jagged sketches that prioritize the Neo-Futurist aesthetic of relentless self-consciousness above the requests of its survey participants. Perhaps that’s an unintentional insight that speaks truth. It is, after all, simply a fact that surveyors can ask what the market wants, but they’re still going to sell us whatever they’ve got.