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  • Jonathan Kalb

In Poor Voice


Call me clueless, but I wasn’t aware, before seeing Mona Pirnot’s new play I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop, that computers today are almost all able to speak any text on the screen aloud. The default voices are pretty robotic, as I learned—emotionally flat, restricted in timbre, no breath pauses—but they do the job. You can understand the words. I can see why lots of people would find this feature helpful. Most of Pirnot’s play is spoken by one of these tinny, automated voices while she sits alone at a table on a bare stage with her back to the audience, operating a laptop to advance the text and occasionally singing songs she wrote and strumming a guitar.

Here’s a suggestion: instead of continuing to read this review, why don’t you find the text-to-speech function on your own computer and listen to it. That’s much more likely than any description to convey what it was like to listen to such speech for 65 minutes in a theater.

Pirnot is married to the accomplished playwright Lucas Hnath, who directed this play and has experimented before with live interactions between actors and machine-generated voices (A Simulacrum and Dana H.). I Love You So Much recounts a personal trauma in Pirnot’s life, sort of. It was some sort of health crisis, never specified, suffered by her sister in 2020 which left Pirnot so depressed she became withdrawn and uncommunicative. The male-gendered text-to-speech software we hear helped her out of that pit, becoming a lifeline for her in writing and therapy. “I mostly work with him these days,” she (voiced by he) says. “I love to work with him. I work with him so often I think in his voice. I hear my thoughts in his voice.”

The play was evidently built around the idea of sharing the marvels of this miraculous accessory with us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really glimmer with any sort of revelatory light. The sonic monotony, for one thing, is downright soporific—I started to nod after 15 minutes or so. More important, though, way before the end, Pirnot struck me as coyly evasive rather than mysterious or trapped in fascinating ways. Even her rigid stance of facing away eventually read more as a rigorously rehearsed trope for incapacitation than a moving evocation of the real thing.

I couldn’t help but think of Beckett’s character C in Rough for Theatre II, who stands silently at a window with his back to the audience the whole play as two numbskull bureaucrats chew over his life. I also recalled Pinter’s characters in Landscape and Silence, who speak about one another while seated in opposing chairs but never acknowledge (or perhaps hear) each other’s voices. In all those plays, the characters’ stark withholding gestures are part of mysteries we’re meant to unravel and interpret. Pirnot’s play, by contrast, contains no comparable mystery, unless you want to count whatever unanswered questions there are about depression. Her withholding therefore comes off as, well, a conceit of alienation. Her songs may have been intended as a sympathetic counterpoint, since they’re our only opportunity to hear her actual voice, but their effect in performance is to affirm and deepen the sense of affected alienation because they’re all so breathily vague, melancholic, languid, and desultory.

The play’s fractured narrative is clearly meant to tug our heartstrings, but it too proves unflattering. Wandering, roundabout, and maudlin, it begins with descriptions of ineffectual support groups Pirnot attended on zoom during the pandemic, moves on to a story about volunteering for God’s Love We Deliver that also failed to lift her spirits, and explains her disappointment with books she consulted (“the kind that [say], hey you, yes you, your mind is a prison but the key’s in your pocket”). We then hear the backstory of her romance with Hnath, learn of his staunch support during the sister’s health crisis, and finally get a misty-eyed account of the death of Pirnot’s family dog. What we never hear, throughout this whole play about a woman supposedly unhinged by her sister’s grave illness, is any information at all about that sister.

Why was she so important? A sibling so central to Pirnot’s psyche as to be a pillar of her sanity surely merits a description, even if only an indirect one, possibly by describing their connection. The text at one point quotes a line in bell hooks’s book All About Love that reportedly meant so much to Pirnot that she highlighted it: “it is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.”

Ah, there’s the rub, I thought at that moment. Had this play taken hooks’s cue and freed itself from those “easier” pickings, dwelling less on loss, regret, and self-absorption, and reaching instead for the harder-to-get fruit of clear sight, acknowledgement, and ultimately insight, it would not have ended up feeling as sketchy, tenuous, and unfinished as it does.

Photos: Jenny Anderson

By Mona Pirnot

Directed by Lucas Hnath

New York Theater Workshop

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