Everyone’s a Mark in ACT’s ‘Communion’

Stacy Ross pulls off the long con in Christopher Chen’s solo show about lying for the ‘right’ reasons.

I’ve been thinking a lot about House of Games since tuning out of the American Conservatory Theater’s production of Communion — Christopher Chen’s Zoom-exclusive solo show.

In David Mamet’s 1987 neo-noir thriller, Mike, played by Joe Mantegna, explains how the best cons work: “It’s called a ‘confidence game.’ Why? Because you give me your confidence? No, because I give you mine.”

Taking a page out of Mike’s playbook, the star of Communion, acclaimed Bay Area actor Stacy Ross, spends a great deal of the hour-plus runtime telling us of her con artist past in Los Angeles. She even lets us know early on that we’re active participants in a brand new con, which she explains step-by-step.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have two specific reactions to learning this. First, you’ll begin actively looking for the tricks this con artist might be pulling on the more gullible marks in the audience, because — secondly — you’ll convince yourself that you’re far too smart to fall for such an obvious scam.

No one likes to think of themselves as a sucker. And yet, far too many of us believe that Joe Biden lost the election, that mass shootings are government-funded false flags, and that COVID-19 is a hoax — even as we continue to die from complications related to the novel coronavirus. In short, merely believing you’re smart doesn’t actually make it so.

With Communion, Chen and Ross pull off an impressive sleight-of-hand which I will not reveal here — both because I don’t wish to spoil the play for those who would see it and because the ACT asked me so nicely not to give away the ending. It’s similar to the way late arrivals were turned away from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, or how the ACT itself implored us critics not to spoil Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria. In the case of the latter play, the plea attempted to hide a mediocre script that relied too heavily on shock value. That Chen, Ross, and director Pam MacKinnon pull off a bigger twist with less flash is a testament to their talents and the importance of substance over style.

But what of the play itself? What is it beyond the unmentioned twist ending?

Well, on its surface, it’s just about Ross turning the format of Zoom into a sort of Catholic confessional, wherein she opens up about her own sins and fears in the hopes that we audience members — most of whom kept our cameras on the whole time — will feel comfortable enough to do the same. Indeed, the ability to dehumanize others online is simpler when they have no face. Looking at one’s face will (hopefully) assign them a sense of identity.

And through Ross’ half-scripted/half-improvised delivery (at one point, she flashes us the script to show us that she’s meant to ad-lib this particular section) she does successfully get audience members to confess to schisms they have between themselves and family members. She recounts Chen’s would-be epiphany of watching bees and thinking “everything is insignificant,” only for two audience members to emotionally challenge that assumption. Near the end, she forces several of us into separate digital rooms where we were prompted to have a conversation.

Incidentally, I ended up face-to-face, so to speak, with someone I knew. There were some long silences — whether as a result of pandemic-related social atrophy or just plain social anxiety on my part — but we did catch up. I had nothing to brag about, which is why I’ve never gone to any of my high school reunions. Still, we spoke.

But, as you may be asking yourself, why? What’s the point of dropping admission for another streamed performance to actively engage in social awkwardness for the benefit of someone who confesses to both a history of confidence scams and the fact that she’s pulling one over on us at this very moment? Because it offers us the chance to hide and step out at the same time. Ross insists that her intentions are altruistic, that by streaming from what-appears-to-be her bedroom or den that she, and we, can experience the outside world from the safety of our own homes — and create a genuine connection through that intimacy.

A “communion,” if you will.

The flaw of the production, low-key though it may be, is that it falls into the usual one-person show trap of dragging a bit. Despite its short run time, Ross’s proselytizing trails at points, making the hour seem long. She, Chen, and MacKinnon draw fine parallels (between con artistry and acting, between historical and contemporary tribalism, in-person and online personas, etc.), but some further tightening would make it seem less like a TED Talk.

A few of the shows I’ve recently streamed — Shotgun Players’ Feel the Spirit and Berkeley Rep’s Waves in Quarantine — also explored the idea of community archetypes collapsing and evolving during the screen-heavy pandemic. Both of those shows put their companies’ many resources to lavish use. Pam MacKinnon (also ACT’s artistic director) and her collaborators wisely go the opposite direction here. Rather than a David Copperfield-style disappearance of the Statue of Liberty, MacKinnon and company opt for a more grounded Three-Card Monte. The purpose isn’t to catch the scammer in the act; it is to be in the same crowd, watching the same unbelievable trick.

May 28 to June 27 | $45 – $60

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic. thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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