By Wendy Rosenfield
At long last, we reach Act 3 of New Paradise Laboratories’ Extremely Public Displays of Privacy. We followed the entanglement between forty-something Fess Elliot (Annie Enneking)--wife, mother, lapsed musician--and twenty-something internet sylph Beatrix Luff (Brittany Freece, voiced by Mary Tuomanen) from the moment they met by chance online, through seven podcasts featuring an exhibitionist’s walking tour of Rittenhouse Square, to the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets, where we are ushered into an undisclosed location, and presumably, all will be revealed.
At first, when we pass Jorge Cousineau’s 10-foot-high video projections of Beatrix’s dreamy face and enter Fess’ sheet-metal-lined basement bunker, where she sits handcuffed to a desk, we think, “Ah, here it comes.” But it never does come.
Instead, Elliot gives a brief concert of the music we heard in Act 1, along with some storytelling. And by the way, live trumps digital Enneking, who also wrote the songs. Earlier, I compared her to a “defanged Liz Phair.” Here, she’s more like a softer “To Bring You My Love”-era PJ Harvey, with whom she also shares more than a passing physical resemblance.
That era is an important marker. The final flesh-and-blood portion of this show coincides with the 20th anniversary release of grunge’s 12-song national anthem, Nevermind, which arrived at approximately the same time Fess was busking her way around Seattle. Her bunker, with scattered oriental rugs and an array of guitars, immediately recalls Nirvana’s 1994 MTV Unplugged session. Fess hands out photographs (photographs!) of her family, and answers a call from Beatrix on a rotary phone. She lets the audience smell fresh-squeezed lemon and grated ginger.
So what? It seems to me director Whit MacLaughlin (along with co-creators Cousineau, Enneking, Freece and playwright Larry Loebell) simply wants to say that these millenials, with all their digital toys, willful abandonment of privacy and decency, and seemingly indigenous facility with all things electronic and promotional, are making it awfully hard for old folks to do their thing for the simple love of the art form. Fess, in trying to Beatrix-proof her hideaway and put on a show for a small crowd, is really just a version of that codger standing on the porch, shaking his fist, yelling about kids these days. Except if you invite the kids inside and expose yourself to them like some pervy Chatroulette random, well, you get what you get.
I don’t think it’s an entirely fair assessment of the cultural landscape, but hey, I respect it, particularly since MacLaughlin and company went to such lengths to bolster and layer their point, which is certainly worth exploring, from all its angles. Unfortunately, it also makes for some pretty frustrating theater.