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The Investigation was like what would happen if the members of your mom's secret #muellerreport Facebook group all got fabulous new haircuts and then live-streamed their group chat.With last night's live reading, Hollywood appeared to be saying: If publishing the report as a book and audiobook won't do it, if a press conference from Mueller won't do it, if two years of build up and press coverage won't do, we'll damn well get America to care about this report using the power of the theater'! The results were strange.Kevin Kline played Mueller, and though Kline is an animated and talented actor, he chose to portray the man as subdued and reserved as he actually is, which had the perhaps unintended effect of rendering his words as forgettable as Mueller's press conference performance.John Lithgow starred as Trump, and was satisfyingly angry and animated, though for every great line read that got your attention he was forced to weirdly read his own stage directions, which was both confusing and brought him out of character. Annette Bening read editorial comments from the playwright in the role of narrator, and that was fine.The rest of the cast—from Michael Shannon (with a lustrous mane of hair) to Alyssa Milano—played multiple characters, which was often incredibly confusing, even for the actors. At one point Milano missed her cue to come in and read as lawyer Jay Sekulow, and who really could blame her? The "play" hadn't contextualized who Sukelow was, hadn't explained that she was playing him, and had no way—at least in the live stream—for viewers to keep track of who anyone was playing.
The Investigation was like what would happen if the members of your mom's secret #muellerreport Facebook group all got fabulous new haircuts and then live-streamed their group chat.
As a piece of performance art, it had the same rushed, unrehearsed feeling that every staged reading of a play ever has. Readings like this are usually done because the playwright is not yet finished writing, or the theater hasn't committed to a full-blown production so they're testing the waters. Even when they are written to be performed as a reading—à la The Vagina Monologues or The Exonerated—they are done so to minimize preparation time so the cast can easily rotate. Essentially, they're always thrown together. Last night was no exception.
Emily Dreyfuss covers the intersection of tech and culture for WIRED.Which is why of course you'd be forgiven for missing it. The reading was announced just a few hours before it aired, with a press release from the nonprofit Law Works, which sponsored the event. Like so many political/cultural events these days, I first learned of it from an Alyssa Milano tweet sent with six hours notice. I cancelled my plans (feeding and having dinner with my family) and watched the countdown clock on the Law Works website. When it struck 6 pm, I was hit with my first disappointment: The live stream didn't autoplay. I refreshed a few times and finally got the stream to play at around 6:06 pm, with the reading already in full swing. I had no idea who anyone was supposed to be.As with any staged reading, the actors sat in the classic position, with scripts balanced on music stands in front of them. Some of the actors stood up to read their lines, others didn’t. Some had clearly prepared, like Lithgow, and did a great job with the actual dialogue. Others seemed to be reading the script for the first time.Like Mueller’s press conference, it was largely a frustrating viewing experience. Everything happened so fast and vacillated between confusing, funny, and cringe-y. The most successful moments of the show from a theatrical perspective were the laugh lines. Noah Emmerich got a few as Steve Bannon. Lithgow got a lot reading Trump tweets. (FWIW, I would tune in to an audio recording of Lithgow reading Trump tweets on the regular, if a producer out there wants to make a successful podcast.)But every laugh underscored how mismatched to the purpose this format was. The point, surely, wasn't to make light of the report. It was rather to show how damaging and important this widely under-read report is. But in order to not bore anyone to death, the actors played up their lines. They yelled, they emoted, they acted! It looked like they were really having a lot of fun, which is wonderful for them. But by playing it for laughs, the reading made the report into a sideshow. And even when the drama hit home, the best moments—a fiery exchange between Lithgow and Grey, in Act 2, for instance—were undermined by the rushed and weird format.Maybe it played better in the room. Perhaps a version of this as an audiobook or actual video series would have felt different. But the truth is, asking people to watch a video of a live theatrical performance is really never appropriate, no matter how noble the cause. Even highly produced Broadway shows don't translate well to video. Theater is meant to be experienced in situ. This goes double for staged readings.Only two kinds of people are usually ever willing to watch your video-taped performances: your parents (if they missed the show live) and someone who is trying to sleep with you. (I don’t make these rules, I just live in the world, folks.) It doesn't appear that many people did watch last night. No hashtag emerged. None of the actors' names trended. When I asked how people had liked it on Twitter, the most common response I got was, "Are you actually watching that?" The people who did watch were the ones most likely to have already read the report. The people tweeting approvingly about it often had left-leaning political statements into their bios. Those tweeting about how it proved Hollywood was full of a bunch of narcissistic liberals had, predictably, conservative lingo in theirs.What did Hollywood achieve last night? Not very much. But perhaps, though, it can provide Tinseltown with one new rule: Staged readings should never be live-streamed.
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