As someone who understands from experience the great energy, effort, and time that go into crafting new works for the stage, it’s nothing short of disheartening to see a 90-minute piece of theatre with barely one minute of true comedy, drama, or catharsis to show for all of the work that, presumably, the creative team has put into it.
I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here to the creators of In the Company of Jane Doe, which ended on June 2 its two-week run at New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre. Written by Tiffany Antone, the play is about a stressed-to-the-max career woman in her early thirties named Jane Doe, who, after approaching an anxiety attack in her therapist’s office, decides to take a strange doctor up on his offer to clone her, with the idea that her clone will make Jane’s avalanche of a workload a little bit lighter. Everything runs amuck, however, when Jane’s clone, Jenny (who doesn’t make her appearance until twenty-five minutes before the play’s ending), turns out to look not only nothing like her daguerreotype – but better. She is fresher, younger, kinder, and more artistic, with zero baggage or real responsibility, no unsavory memories to repress, and a healthy dollop of self-esteem. Jenny’s initial purpose is to befriend Jane and help ease her workload, but, after Jane shows her clone no appreciation and, on top of that, tries to control her, Jenny rebels against her maker, gets “the guy,” and becomes the creative hero around the office. Jane, unable to handle this added stress and competition, grows more and more anxious until finally she reaches a psychotic break.
One could imagine this plot giving birth to an intriguing – albeit somewhat trite – comedy, but any potential for such intrigue withers in the shadow of poor theatrical choices made by the play’s writer (Antone), director (Paul Urcioli), and several of its actors. With the exception of a few moments of poignant honesty from Marta Kuersten (Jane), an awareness from Sarah Brill (Jenny) of how important it is for an actor to listen to her fellow actors onstage, and some genuinely funny bouts of comedy from the under-utilized Elizabeth Neptune and Joe Stipek (both Doc/Scientist/Office Drone characters), the play was uncomfortable to watch – not because the venue was too hot or the back of my chair too straight but because it was bad theatre.
In the Company of Jane Doe has many shortcomings: the writing is overly expositional, superficial, and unoriginal; the direction lacks voice and, as a result, specificity; the play feels cluttered with gimmicky acting, heavy-handed attempts at comedy, and insignificant dialogue; and furthermore, its structure is weak, causing the action to fall flat and seem trivial. But the main problem I had with Jane Doe is the same problem that lies at the heart of all bad theatre: it’s when storytellers lose sight of the story they’re telling.
In press material, the play’s producers claim that “any woman that has ever worked in America or anywhere else on Earth” should see Jane Doe. If so, then the story needs to address the real struggles of working women, even if it is a comedy – or, I should say, especially if it is a comedy. Comedy only works when its underlying stakes are high, and other than the title character’s recurring neurotic displays of anxiety, the play gives its audience no reason to care that Jane Doe succeeds in her career. Sure, in theory, we all want an independent woman – who for generations would have been denied power in the workplace – to move up the career ladder, but why should we audience members actually care, right here, right now? If Antone and Urcioli, as writer and director, assumed their audiences would automatically empathize with the premise of a modern-day career woman at the end of her rope, they assumed incorrectly. Audiences don’t relate to ideas in the abstract; they relate, rather, to the living and breathing humanity onstage in front of them. We attend the theatre to witness artfully crafted pockets of life, and we deserve to experience the catharsis that comes from such witnessing. That’s what we’ve signed up for – and it’s what the storytellers have agreed to give. Even if every member of an audience can understand a story’s premise in the abstract, if the performers do not reify that premise onstage in the flesh, then there is no play. The actors might as well be reciting grocery lists for all we care.
In failing to give audiences a reason to invest in the story and its characters, the creators of In the Company of Jane Doe made bad, inconsequential theatre. If they ever revive the production and hope for it to be a storytelling success, the creative team must first understand what it is about their story that matters and then not lose sight of sharing that with their audiences.