At some point in their writing lives, most playwrights turn from the world they can never finally fathom to one they already know too well. Recent New York seasons have brought us both fond backstagers and bitter portraits of actors gone feral in works by Chekhov and Odets, Mamet and Gurney, Ruhl and Jacobs-Jenkins, and many others. (One of the best of the genre, Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off, returns in December.) Whether love letters or poison pen, these plays all exploit the oversized personalities and built-in hysteria of show folk and show-making to establish the stakes. Not 10 out of 12. Anne Washburn’s odd and often hilarious new comedy, commissioned by Soho Rep, takes on the perverse challenge of making theater out of the only part of the theatrical life that almost everyone hates: the intense, soul-crushing boredom of tech rehearsals.
These are the run-throughs that take place in the days immediately before a show begins previews, in which every cue is rehearsed and, theoretically, perfected. Lights, sound, costumes, sets, and the crews that operate them must all be coordinated, in millisecond increments, to produce from thousands of discrete actions the smooth performance an audience will see. This takes a lot of time; four days would not be unusual for even a simple Off Broadway production. (Spider-Man’s tech took twelve weeks.) To protect actors and the stage managers who run the rehearsals from exhaustion, their union, Actors Equity, enforces a rule that limits the duration of tech to ten hours in each twelve-hour day: hence Washburn’s title. But even that rule is not enough to preserve everyone’s sanity. The days without daylight, the erratic eating, the numbing repetition, and the fear that nothing is working (or ever will) have often been enough to traumatize a cast and damage a show aborning.
It’s that condition of art in limbo that Washburn sets out to dramatize, for the most part using only the tools that would actually be available. This means that in her story of the first day of tech rehearsal for a ridiculous postmodern mashup of a gay-themed plantation melodrama and a modern horror tale, human conflict is suppressed (until it isn’t). The actors, at least at the start, are just props to dress and situate properly. The emotion we usually expect to derive from humans in a play are instead transferred onto objects and processes. Audience members are provided with headsets to wear throughout the show so they can listen in on the stage manager’s conversations with the various crews, and their byplay as well. (It seemed to me that almost a quarter of the content of 10 out of 12 was funneled through my earbud.) The loudspeaker system and the unaided human voice are also in play, mostly offering the sound of people bloviating or temporizing or discussing things that are of no intrinsic interest. (The gibberish is gorgeously montaged by the play’s sound designer, Bray Poor.) Washburn has fun arranging these separate channels in counterpoint, as when the stage manager, over the headset system, is given an estimate of two minutes before the rehearsal can resume, but publicly announces ten.
The visuals are also in counterpoint. Lights and sounds frequently flare up in what seem like random eruptions, then recede as if embarrassed. (If there has ever been a lighting design you could describe as uproarious, Wendy Rich Stetson’s is it.) Actors fiddle endlessly with their props, or twirl in their hoop skirts in experiments that become demented. This will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than Washburn’s earlier plays, which frequently involve a severe compositional constraint, have been. (The Internationalist employed an invented language; Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play imagined an apocalyptic world in which the only surviving text was an episode of The Simpsons.) But I found 10 out of 12 exceptionally funny and moving, the more so for the mystery of how either reaction was produced. Perhaps it was the result of Washburn’s patience in sticking with her perversity; the payoff came when, eventually — and, some people apparently felt, not a moment too soon — a human drama began to emerge out of the randomness.
That drama is the one at the heart of theater, a form that today is equal parts art and science — or to look at it another way, frenzy and restraint. Representing the restraint in 10 out of 12 are the backstage people, especially the stage manger, played with nerves of steel and professional warmth (and yet a tantalizing hint of something else behind it) by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. It’s a delicious irony that she and her staff actually eschew drama; when an electrics crewmember accidentally slices his arm with an X-Acto knife, he poultices the wound with Neosporin and duct tape so as not to delay tech. Representing the frenzy are, of course, the “creatives,” especially the inner show’s pretentious director, who pronounces “jaguar” with three syllables but triple-guesses every lame decision he’s made and ultimately proves quite useless. (In a beautifully calibrated performance, Bruce McKenzie lets you hate the character while still understanding why he gets hired.) Also speaking up for the art side of the equation is a blowhard methody actor named Paul, played by Thomas Jay Ryan, brilliant as always. When he and the director get into a ridiculous rhubarb over Paul’s interpretation of his idiotic role, you realize that 10 out of 12 has passed from the totally abstract to the mortifyingly actual; you want to stab them both, and hide the Neosporin.
Indeed, the entire cast, under the jaw-droppingly fine direction of Les Waters, is dead-on. And it’s quite amazing to see Washburn pull the rabbit of real theater out of an obviously trick hat. My problem with 10 out of 12, which only began to emerge around hour eight (the play is about 2 hours and 40 minutes, but covers a whole day’s tech), is that the rabbit is not very consequential. There’s lots of talk in the second act about how money and modern technology and even the protections of a contract have altered the theater; our blowhard, of course, insists that in the “old pre-union days” actors believed more in themselves and were “heroes of art.” But engaging that argument — or, really, any argument — undoes the magic Washburn set out to create, without delivering something as valuable in return. As the play ground toward its Hail Mary conclusion I wondered if cutting some of the conventional (and ultimately banal) conflict might have helped keep the focus on what is so beautifully unusual about it. But keep in mind that I saw a preview. Perhaps what 10 out of 12 needed was more rehearsal.
10 out of 12 is at Soho Rep through July 18.