Better Left Unsaid
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
January 30, 2011
When is watching a play not like watching a play? Well, when the play is, by its own admission, “a first of its kind, interactive, live-streamed play.” Better Left Unsaid, written and directed by Joey Brenneman, takes the story of eight lives intersecting in New York City not just from the page to the stage, but now to the internet, for people around the world to see in real time.
First off, this project is very ambitious. Over the last few years, live theatre has been embracing the ways in which new media can help deliver samples of their work to audiences beyond those who show up and sit in the seats. Companies have been experimenting with podcasts, web series, web comics, and animation as ways to expand the story world of their projects and, if done in an exciting and engaging way, create valuable marketing tools. The creators of Better Left Unsaid take all this a step further, attempting to recreate the experience of watching a unique live show—the claim theatre has always made in its defense—while finding ways to make a live show’s presence on the internet both economically and creatively viable.
Better Left Unsaid is basically two different experiences—the live play and Better Left Unsaid TV, the online experience of it.
The live play is almost shockingly conventional for any play attaching “first of its kind” to itself in any way, but it’s also largely well acted and, overall, a story told with sensitivity and some insight. Eight people paired off, generally, into two-character scenes and storylines wade through the secrets and tensions of their group. Maggie has a secret about William to tell her daughter, Lennie, while Lennie’s planned adoption of a baby brings to light things about Nick that Carla would rather not know about her brother-in-law and feels conflicted about hiding from her sister, Luisa. It’s one of those web-of-association stories that is genuinely fun to see unfold.
Brenneman’s writing is clean, clearly identifying the conflicts in the individual scenes, and sees some of its greatest moments when Luisa is describing the effects that child-bearing has had on her and subsequently on her relationships with her husband and friends. Her direction of the piece is generally still and lets her words and the actors tell the story.
The acting is believable and well suited for the space. Jennifer Dorr White as Maggie brings a great frankness and understatement to scenes that have moments that can be emotionally on-the-nose. Kathryn Velvel Jones and Craig Waletzko, as the married couple, Luisa and Nick, dealing with infidelity, do a fine job conveying the Everyperson-ness of the couple’s situation, while also not letting that take away from its importance to these particular characters.
Better Left Unsaid TV is a bit different. You still get the play I just described, filmed by three camera operators, mixed on site and then streamed in real time, while also getting some backstage interviews with the actors and producers during the intermission. The online community is also encouraged to use Twitter to post messages about the show that are then projected onto a screen in the theatre during scene transitions so that the theatre audience can get a sense of how the online audience is responding to it.
The filmed version is where some of the challenges of working simultaneously in different media become apparent. Earlier, I described the live acting as “well suited for the space,” which is true. It is good stage acting. However, stage acting and on-screen acting are not the exact same thing—or, at least, they are not the same thing at the same time. The actors are miked and the picture quality of the stream is fantastic. But the translation of acting from stage to screen makes the streamed version seem … well … a little stagy, a little bigger than it needs to be.
Also, it was a little strange that the producers—Erin Bigelow, along with Jones and Brenneman—chose a play so far in subject matter from riding a wave of technical innovation. Presentation doesn’t match up with content, as becomes apparent when many of the online comments are less interacting than they are making observations about, say, what the set looks like or which character they like best. We are being invited to interact with something that we don’t actually have any active control over. While Better Left Unsaid tries to bring live theatre to an audience watching on-screen, it ends up stuck between a play and a television show filmed before a live studio audience.
These criticisms of the execution, though, really do show how much the idea behind this play’s presentation got me thinking. There is something here. There is, already, a very watchable live play—and then there are a bunch of really interesting possibilities. I hope the producers continue working with this concept and we can see even more effective innovation from them in the future.