Humana Festival Play Examines Sinister Side of Customer Service

by Erin Keane on March 1, 2012

Few critical terms are as overused as “Kafkaesque,” which has come to serve as shorthand for tedious bureaucratic snarls of all stripes. But Lisa Kron’s “The Ver**on Play,” a dark yet broad comedy about the hidden machinations and motivations of faceless corporations bent on crushing their customers’ spirits, does its best to live up to the concept.

Directed by Nicholas Martin, “The Ver**on Play” premiered Wednesday in the Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays, where it runs through April 1.

What begins as a meandering story about a mundane phone billing mistake picks up about halfway through when the situation spirals into an increasingly desperate and surreal saga as one woman finds herself at the mercy of the telecommunications giant whose name rhymes with “horizon” (as in “no hope on the”).

Jenni (also played by Kron) is a cheerful nonprofit worker living in Brooklyn with her sister Anissa (Carolyn Baeumler), a corporate suit whose salary pays the rent. Jenni’s billing issue — misapplied funds — begins as a frustrating yet harmless ancedote she relates to her friends at a party. But her persistent attempts to rectify the situation and connect on a human level with the corporation fail. At the urging of mysterious party guest Ingrid (Hannah Bos), Jenni seeks solace in a fringe support group of paranoid malcontents suffering at the hands of various corporations and public utilities.

Radical measures begin to sound appropriate, and not everyone in Jenni’s circle is who they appear to be — not even the perversely bland customer service agents who exacerbate her phone issue beyond repair.

Jenni’s our heroine, but her support group steals the show. They include the tic-ridden analytical genius Jerry (a delightfully brittle Joel Van Liew), who actually deciphered every line item on his gas and electric bill, and Carol (Ching Valdes-Aran), who was declared dead by the same phone company despite all evidence to the contrary. Carol’s story is the most absurd, and yet it is utterly plausible to imagine her banging on the phone company office door, demanding they see her as a living, breathing human being.

At the heart of this play is the very contemporary question of what it means to be a struggling individual at the mercy of wealthy and powerful corporations who have been deemed too essential to the fabric of our society and economy to fail. Individuals, on the other hand, are welcome to fail — to lose phone service despite their paid bills, to have their houses sent erroneously into foreclosure, to be entered into credit card agreements to which they never explicitly agreed. They’re just account numbers, and their dangerous anonymity is the evil twin of convenience.

Some of the silliness of the script felt forced (in particular, an extended European hot-pursuit montage stubbornly resisted payoff), and some of the last-minute subplot twists work better than others. But Kron’s best move is not even attempting to explain why the phone company can’t or won’t fix her account — it’s all the more sinister and believable when we realize that the corporation will never have to explain itself and won’t suffer any true consequences.

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