Sketchy: A New Show from a Veteran Performer Doesn't Quite Capture the Full Picture

In Each and Every Thing, his new solo show at the Marsh, Dan Hoyle lodges complaints that most of us, save the most zealous techies, can't help but share. Digital connections, he laments, thwart real, meaningful ones in myriad ways: They foster skimming at the expense of perusing; they isolate us at home when we should be in the world with others; they glue our eyes to screens when we should be making eye contact. When did it become awkward to not be on your phone at a party, or ever?

Under the direction of Charlie Varon, and with development by Varon and Maureen Towey, Hoyle frames the piece as a recent college grad's bildungsroman qua Luddite's diatribe. A theater major, he has no marketable skills — “Maybe you should stop listing Microsoft Word proficiency as a job skill on your résumé,” advises his best friend and guru Prateem — but an extraordinary passion: meeting people from different walks of life and performing their stories.

Hoyle easily surmounts other obstacles in the scattered narrative: mustering the courage to walk up to Chicago corner boys and ask them to be a part of his performance projects, traveling to remote places like Nebraska, Nigeria, and India to fish for exotic subjects. It's phones and computers, though, that make him say he was “losing” his crusade to get strangers to connect with him in a mode he calls “open time” — unhurried conversation in which future play characters reveal their unmediated, surprising selves.

These sentiments are deeply sympathetic, and Hoyle expresses them both knowledgeably and earnestly. At one point, he refers to screens' relationship to the brain's oxytocin levels; at others his frustration is so clearly fueled by genuine sorrow for the social and emotional tolls of the digital revolution that you can't help but see your own phone-checking as a nefarious compulsion, even if you've entertained such qualms often before.

Still, as Hoyle's grievances ramble on, he starts to sound both naïve and condescending. Why take so much time to explain a phenomenon with which everyone in his audience is already so painfully familiar? Worse still, there's little drama in all this exposition. The stories he keeps telling us he's so excited to share, and which are deeply fascinating, become mere tangents to his own, often trite story of accepting his calling and his own limitations in overcoming his obstacles.

This is Hoyle's fifth show with the Marsh, where previous pieces like Tings They Happen, about oil politics in Nigeria, and The Real Americans, about the divide between red states and blue states, have enjoyed extended runs, great acclaim, and then tours. The Marsh, which has a proud history of providing long-term support to homeboys like Hoyle, is one of the few theaters in the Bay Area where performers regularly get the opportunity to perform for months, or longer, at a time. (Even at much bigger theaters, many shows close after just three weeks.)

In those past shows, and in this one, the great pleasure is the specificity with which this talented, thoughtful performer, who is a Bay Area native but is now based in New York, embodies an array of characters. There's Coco, a corner boy with a lilting drawl who compares Hoyle, his nervous, white interviewer, to Daniel in the lion's den. There's the young racist in Nebraska with two “fellies” (felonies) who says, “I'm a very violent individual,” and who has the constantly dancing footwork of a pugilist to prove it. There's the sublimely languorous Prateem, whose always-lit joint seems to have alighted on his two fingers like a butterfly. (Though he contrasts comically with the restless brooding of Hoyle's autobiographical character, the pair's extended conversations can feel like a trap from Playwriting 101: the roommate play inspired by drug-induced chatter that seemed really deep at the time.)

Each character seems the product of lengthy, almost scientific study. One character's lilt has an “aww, man” whine underpinning every sentence; another character with a similar accent is wholly distinct in the way he emphasizes the last few syllables of each line as if he's speaking slam poetry.

It's a shame these deftly drawn sketches don't get to be full portraits.

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