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Call it pandemic theater: These plays are set amid the coronavirus quarantine

Clayton Farris and Poonam Basu star in "Our First Honest Conversation," a newly revised play that takes place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
(Skylight Theatre)

“OK, let’s do this,” said Poonam Basu to Clayton Farris. It’s the opening lines in “Our First Honest Conversation,” a one-act play in which an estranged couple attempts to reignite a sexual spark using only words.

But this staging of the dramedy was different. Playwright Christine Hamilton-Schmidt had tweaked a few lines of the script — originally set within a single room — to take place on a video call. Because of the novel coronavirus, the man and woman in the story were sheltering in place separately and therefore even more desperate to reconnect.

“It’s still the same two characters with the same relationship problems,” director Victoria Pearlman told The Times. “But the piece was slightly adjusted to speak to the immense change that’s happened in the last month, and the situation we’re all in.”

Skylight Theatre, a Los Angeles theater company that prioritizes social issues, unveiled the newly revised version online last week with the maximum 100 socially distanced viewers streaming the show live on Zoom. It kicked off weekly plays from its writers lab set amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the series will continue until Skylight can open its doors again.

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The company has since switched to YouTube and Facebook to accommodate an unlimited number of viewers. Each piece is available live and on demand free of charge, and all cast and crew are volunteering.

“This is a really tough time, and we don’t know when it’s going to end,” said Gary Grossman, producing artistic director of Skylight Theatre. “But actors need to act, writers need to write, directors need to direct, and theaters need to keep doing what we do. This is about staying in touch with our community and saying, ‘We’re gonna be together again soon.’

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These quarantine-set scripts aren’t as depressing as the real-life situations that have inspired them. “Benton Way,” streaming Thursday at 3 p.m., follows two businessmen (played by Adam Ballard and Adam Lebowitz-Lockard) who catch each other’s eye during a company conference call. Since they can’t get to know each other in person, they try to do so in isolation.

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“It’s almost like falling in love with someone over written letters, the way people did in the 19th century,” said Tony Abatemarco, Skylight’s co-artistic director, who wrote the romantic comedy with Michael Kearns. He found it therapeutic to develop characters who are as concerned about the pandemic and practicing social distancing as he is.

“All of the factual developments, day by day, are already present in every conversation I have,” said Abatemarco. “But there’s a desire to keep normalcy in place, to share a joke or a funny observation of being trapped in the house for weeks.”

Likewise, playwrights participating in 24 Hour Plays’ “Viral Monologues” series — which uploaded its latest batch of soliloquies to Instagram on Tuesday — are setting their texts amid the spread of the coronavirus, explicitly or otherwise, even though no one was asked to do so. (Methuen Drama will publish these writings as a book, edited by Howard Sherman, who inspired the solo series.)

“The playwrights are never given any kind of specific prompt, but since our work is being seen the same day it’s being created, it usually can’t help but be about whatever is happening in the world because it’s already on everybody’s mind,” said artistic director Mark Armstrong, referring to previous 24 Hour Plays events with pieces about the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Sandy and the 2016 presidential election.

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Pandemic-set plays were bound to happen sooner or later, and it’s so close to home. Numerous members of the theater community have tested positive for the coronavirus, including Tom Hanks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Dae Kim, Laura Bell Bundy and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The disease took the lives of Terrence McNally and Adam Schlesinger.

“In the few weeks we’ve been doing this, it has moved from an abstraction of numbers to actual people who have it, who are struggling and who have passed away,” he explained. “Some plays are about it directly, or in an oblique way. Others don’t even mention it — the moment we’re in is just an element in the room, and the fact that they’re performed in isolation creates that sense of aloneness that many of us have right now.”

A few playwrights have turned to humor. Mario Correa had Derrick Baskin attempt to bluntly woo back an ex, and Harrison David Rivers, who had Russell G. Jones demonstrate how best to steal toilet paper rolls.

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But the global situation has become a personal one for Will Arbery. The “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” playwright, who has had asthma all his life and inherited the condition from his father, wrote a piece about a parent trying to console a child struggling to breathe in the middle of the night.

“I had been hunkering down for a week in panic and anxiety and despair, about breath and how frail our human bodies actually are,” Arbery told The Times from Brooklyn.

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“I’ve since pulled myself out of that dark place and am trying to find opportunities for hope. This felt like a way to tap into some of what I was feeling, and hopefully reach people who were feeling the same things and help them feel less alone.”

Michael Shannon performed the intimate seven-minute monologue to his character’s off-screen kin, the camera positioned to shoot upward as if the viewer were sitting with them both.

Though the coronavirus has halted nearly the entire theater industry, it’s also inspiring some of its artists. “Theater is so up in the air right now, we don’t know what next season will look like, or what will happen to all the shows that were postponed because of it,” Arbery said.

“I guess it’s just a compulsion — I can’t help but try to make something beautiful out of what’s going on.”


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