Dan Lauria – Wendie Malick

Review by Matt Smith

“I wanna do… more. I wanna do better… but there’s so much, and it’s hard to make room for other people’s pain when I’ve got all of this pain of my own.” 

It’s undoubtedly a sentiment to which we can all relate, but it’s also one of the many ideas explored in the new play and up-to-the-minute commentary Sitting and Talking, by Lia Romeo, produced by Mile Square Theatre and set to premiere September 18th. 

The story follows a divorced man (Dan Lauria), whose sister has succumbed to the virus, and a woman (Wendie Malick), recently widowed and, therefore, crippled by fear of commitment, as they navigate the peaks and pitfalls of online dating… right now, as septuagenarians, in April and May 2020 — in the midst of this very pandemic. Through conversations humorous and heartfelt, gripping and guffaw-inducing, raw and real, we watch as the two overcome first date jitters, discuss loving through loss, embarrassingly say the wrong thing or inadvertently reject the others’ advances, and even, as best as they can, attempt virtual sex. However, through all this, equal parts hopeful and cautionary, it’s clear that at its heart, it’s a statement on human connection… and how that connection — when you really want it with a burning, fiery passion — cannot be stopped by your given circumstances. When you feel it, when it’s there, it’ll transcend the screen, defy the barriers, and ultimately change the person on the other end… even if they’re a stranger at first.

There’s much to be said about the piece. Lauria and Malick, for one, play their roles exceptionally, obliterating any association with their famed TV counterparts. Paired with Romeo’s expert script, which captures all the nuances and exploits the insecurities we’re all feeling in front or behind the Zoom lens — from on-camera body dysmorphia to ageism to the growing frustration over people not wearing masks nor social distancing, to agreeing or disagreeing with the government’s response — they display a multifaceted, uber-accurate sense of our environment as it currently stands.

Equally important, however, is the way in which the production is conceptualized. It goes beyond the simple presentation of a play via Zoom; it’s a play literally set on Zoom… which perhaps says more about where we could be headed content-wise, regardless of how we present it. While we assume we’ll eventually return to some form of what was in terms of live theatre — albeit in a much better, more equitable world — this presentation offers a new approach to playwriting in our current reality: using a familiar, digestible format to attack the issues head-on.

What’s more? Presenting the play in this way helps us connect with its characters and its content. Because we are watching an actual Zoom conversation play out through two separate computer screens, we see them more as people rather than actors. That fourth wall has been completely removed; yes, we are an audience, but we’re essentially the third party on the Zoom call, muted, off-camera, and listening — interacting with them in the same way we’d interact with our boss or our colleagues in the middle of a workday.  

Furthermore, in terms of script, though the characters do have names (Charles & Enid, according to a press release), the decision to deliberately not reference them in the play suggests that this couple could really be anyone… and not just septuagenarians — anyone in the world post-March 2020. On every level, from the puerile to the poignant, it’s relatable. It is, quite literally — in every facet — a play for today.  

To that end, early on in the action, Charles rescues a bird he finds on the balcony, only to have it die in the box he’s kept it in overnight. “I was stupid to think I could fix it,” he laments to Enid the next day. “I can’t fix anything.” Much like the presumed majority of us in a pre-COVID world, he’s stewing in the negative, unable to believe he can make a substantial difference — for the world or himself. Enid’s in the same boat, inhibiting herself from moving forward with Charles by constantly repeating that “we don’t really know each other,” and asking bleak, melancholy-laced questions like, “Is there anyone out there that isn’t unhappy right now?”

But if there’s anything we’ve learned from this time in quarantine, while we’re vehemently reevaluating what defines “essential,” desperate to reunite with our close friends and family, it’s to lean into the little things. Those things that at first seem minuscule… like the lighthearted conversations about your favorite antique shops, your newly purchased pasta maker, or the deer you saw on your socially distanced morning walk, as Charles and Enid learn to do with each other. After all, you never know what can develop from these simple conversations, or who you may be helping, or healing, in the process. You might even be healing yourself.

It’s all more poignant when, toward the end of the play, Charles, after reading Enid an excerpt from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” accepts an invitation to go out on the balcony. He’s healed, in a way, and finally free to fly. The wall is mended, a connection established, his fears (and hers) eradicated. And it all began on Zoom… with two ordinary people… just sitting and talking.

Sitting and Talking will stream September 18th-20th as part of Mile Square Theatre’s Given Circumstance: New Plays in the Virtual World series. For tickets and more information, visit www.milesquaretheatre.org