Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, Act 3

Extremely Public Displays of Privacy: New Paradise Laboratories explores the digital/analog generational divide with frustrating results. Review by Wendy Rosenfield

Review: Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, Act 3

Fess Elliot in Whit MacLaughlin’s latest show, “Extremely Public Displays of Privacy.”
Fess Elliot in Whit MacLaughlin’s latest show, “Extremely Public Displays of Privacy.”

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. 


Through Oct. 1. Tickets for Act 3, $20, at or 215-923-0334. Reserve an iPod for Act 2 (free) at     

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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