The current state of the world, and particularly of the United States, is naturally affecting the media currently being produced. Whether new works or old stories that have new resonance and meaning in a present day context, it is difficult to go to the theater or watch television without seeing some manifestation of our current anxiety-ridden collective consciousness.
Never is Now, a play by Wendy Kout currently in its world premiere at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles, was adapted from another piece by the playwright called Survivors. That original piece was based on the testimonies of 10 Holocaust survivors, and those stories have been combined with a new present-day storyline that emphasizes the connections between our past and present. Directed by Tony Abatemarco and Celia Mandela Rivera, the play begins in an intimate theater where four actors, a playwright, and a director are rehearsing a play about the Holocaust. All of them are distracted, preoccupied by issues in their own modern lives. One woman (Eliza Blair) is constantly checking her phone, eager for updates on the birth of her new niece or nephew, while the director (Joey Millin) frets, worried about how quickly tech is approaching. He and the female playwright (Evie Abat) are also pulling double duty, filling in for two actors stuck out of town shooting a pilot. There are also tensions between a black cast member (Adam Foster Ballard) and a smug, white cast member (Michael Kaczkowski) who voted for Trump.
In the first of several moments that feel heavy-handed, the director, noting that tensions seem high, encourages his cast to pause during the run-through whenever they have a question or find something in the material they would like to discuss. Some raise important parallels—one actress (Sarah Tubert), a deaf woman with partial facial paralysis, is struck by how her disabilities would have immediately deemed her one of Hitler’s “undesirables.” But mostly, there is not enough real estate in the play’s brief 75 minutes to properly service and flesh out these present-day characters, especially when the past storyline is as complex and detailed as it is.
The six cast members not only play all 10 survivors whose testimonies informed this play, but also a wide array of supporting characters in their stories. Ultimately, it is too many people to keep track of, especially considering that for the most part their stories’ only commonalities are place and time, with little to no intersection otherwise. One cannot help but feel like these survivors might be better serviced by structuring the play as a series of monologues. Since the action is supposed to be taking place in a rehearsal without full costumes or props, it is often difficult to differentiate when the actors switch between characters. Projections (Lily Bartenstein) are inconsistently used just a few times throughout, and some potential is lost in not using them in a way that would help demarcate the storylines and eliminate some confusion. A couple through lines stand out, such as three sisters’ struggle to survive a concentration camp together, or that of a star-crossed couple committed to the Resistance. But typically, there is so much going on and it is so interwoven that it often takes a moment to remember who is who, and the emotional impact would be greater if we invested more time in fewer characters (or added a couple more actors to the cast).
Ultimately, the play’s biggest issue is that you do not need the half-baked present day storyline for the thematic parallels to land. At one point, a character literally asks “did Hitler really say ‘make Germany great again’?” I tend to believe modern audiences are smart enough to think of immigrant detention centers and other current attacks on human rights without having it spelled out so explicitly. The stories of the Holocaust survivors featured are compelling and powerful on their own, and they should be allowed to speak for themselves with subtext filling in the rest. There is a lot of very poignant material here, and it is well performed by the refreshingly diverse cast, but this is not the right format to properly service it. The amount of ground to cover is too ambitious for the short running time, and the themes are too heavily emphasized to the point where there is no room left for imagination or personal interpretation.
Never is Now runs through October 27th at the Skylight Theatre. The running time is 75 minutes, no intermission. Performances are 8:30pm Fridays, 4pm and 8:30pm Saturdays, and 2pm Sundays. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased here.