Waylon and Willie gave wise advice to mamas when they sang, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Someone should write another verse for playwrights: “Don’t direct your own plays.” Regina Taylor, an award-winning scribe (for “Crowns”) and a known TV face (in “I’ll Fly Away” and “The Unit”), does herself no favors by directing “stop.reset.” For a play that seems to place high value on language and communication skills, this “tone poem on memory and change” comes across as a labored exercise in mental doodling.
The clearest, cleanest, most transparent feature of this play is Neil Patel’s set, which invites the aud into the austerely modern office of a small publishing firm in Chicago, a city celebrated for its architectural design.
White desks and glass partitions give an open look to the cubicles where the staff work. Floor-to-ceiling windows also promise to deliver light. The books on the premises — a whole wall of them — are displayed in the publisher’s more traditional private office. An almost continuous stream of authors’ names, with selections from their works (Shawn Sagady designed the excellent projections), are also strong reminders of the words-words-words that are the tools of this particular trade.
The tall, elegant man who arrives in the middle of an ominous snowstorm (that will become a blizzard) is Alexander Ames (Carl Lumbly), proud head of a highly respected black book publishing house in Chicago. The four employees (Michi Barall, Teagle J. Bougere, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Donald Sage Mackay) who leap up from their desks to greet him are in a panic, since one of them must be fired this very day to prevent a hostile takeover by the firm’s all-business business partner.
Were this a realistic play, we might point out the unlikelihood of a publisher consulting his staff on who among them should be fired. But this play is anything but realistic. This becomes obvious when the strange-looking guy — called “J” and played by Ismael Cruz Cordova, who enters from the house and climbs onstage to “clean” the office (out of existence, it appears) — proceeds to advise Alex on how to deal with his problems.
The big calamity, of course, is that nobody reads anymore, not even in a reader’s haven like Chicago. When people do read books, they read them on screens, for a fraction of the price that bookstores and publishers must charge to produce, market, and sell these increasingly rare artifacts.
While everyone at the company acknowledges the predicament that they and their industry are in, only the spooky cleaning guy promises to resolve the problem for Alex — ostensibly by teaching him how to re-tool his business for the new technological age. But as a very large and very bold text message points out, J is something of a “trickster,” a mythological figure who takes pleasure in bamboozling stupid humans. As he sneaks around the office speaking in riddles and stealing people’s memory cards, J seems more intent on appropriating all the memories that define Alex’s life — graphically presented in images from films and photos that flash across the big windows that serve as screens.
Clearly, this is all metaphor. But it’s metaphor run amok, and it’s not even verbal metaphor but visual imagery. For all the lip service paid to books and language and the immortal words of great writers, Taylor’s own dramatic idiom is surprisingly flat, possibly because she doesn’t seem to like any of her characters outside of Alex. Him, she pities.
This is not a happy place for an actor to be, and no one, not even the hard-working Lumbly, seems comfortable talking in tongues. It’s entirely possible, if absurdly ironic, to suggest that another director might have been more protective of the playwright’s words and cut down on the slide show.