Reviewed by Bill Raden
Through August 16
For its fans, the magical third dimension that elevates immersive theater over the conventionally staged drama goes by the prosaic name of audience interaction. By inviting spectators into the action as walking — and even talking — participants, the immersive play strives to heighten its catharsis by delivering a subjective experience more directly analogous to the untidy uncertainties of life itself.
Which may explain why the deceptive simplicity of Red Flags, the immersive dating black comedy by the Los Angeles experimental company, Capital W, is also the source of its understated genius. Currently being remounted after a sold-out run at this summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, the play takes the form of an ill-fated, one-on-one first date between a sole audience member and the show’s hapless, fatalistic heroine.
It’s not the first time that the creative team of writer-director Lauren Ludwig and producer Monica Miklas have used a familiar social ritual as an immersive template. Last year’s And the Drum structured an interactive outing of performance poetry around a Koreatown dinner party for a dozen invited “guests.” With Red Flags, the evening so closely correlates to the real McCoy that its largely ad libbed, roughly 60 minutes prove as irresistibly captivating as a dramatic trompe l’oeil.
Central to the illusion is Lauren Flans’ seamless embodiment of Emma, the narrative’s ego-shattered and emotionally flailing protagonist. The first warnings that all is not right appear several days prior to the scheduled assignation via Emma’s emailed “dating profile” questionnaire. Her answers include typical biographical banalities (she was raised in New Jersey and is a writer) as well as hints of something darker couched as half-hearted repartee (“What’s your biggest disappointment in life? Life itself, ha ha.”).
Missteps soon follow. She arrives late for the actual rendezvous — “I’m soooo sorry. … Am I the worst??” she texts contritely, the first of many apologies with which she compulsively punctuates the evening. In person, she is nervous and on edge and, most of all, prone to making the kind of candid admissions that are inappropriate any place outside of a psychotherapist’s office. “I have had 800 first dates,” she will later admit of a tally in which her “faith in failure becomes absolute. Trying to change it really, really hurts.”
The underlying horror of her human train wreck emerges only gradually and in-between the signal noise of the date’s romantic cross-purposes. Emma reveals that she is out of money and recently homeless — evicted by her roommate over the massive rescue dog that she adopted after hearing the canine’s voice in her head, pleading, “My name is Denny, I love you” (an experience she passes off as a psychic connection).
But the unsettling revelations don’t stop: an unstable home life in Bergen County, NJ; her emotional abandonment by an adulterous mother; her father’s spiraling descent into alcoholism and poverty; the haunting certainty that she is following in his footsteps. The last is but one fear of many that Emma recites from the handy therapeutic inventory that she carries with her. She worries about her tongue kissing technique, and whether she might be the cause of her own problems — but nobody will tell her. Most of all, she is concerned over Denny’s more recent display of snarling hostility whenever she approaches him — a distemper that has perhaps not so coincidentally occurred after being stranded in Tulsa, where she’d been stood up by an old boyfriend for a planned reunion.
What’s most striking about Red Flags is the surprising ease with which the other half of the date falls into reflexive dating stratagems. By the time Emma tries to salvage the night in a painfully plaintive game of sexual flirtation, the point of no return for that possible outcome has long passed. And for this reviewer, who spent an inordinate amount of his hour thoughtlessly gushing about himself, the panic and sheer helplessness at having to convincingly patronize Emma’s yawning despair only exposed the depth to which male vanity can become implicated in the grotesque comedy.
Although it’s probably telling that Ludwig, Miklas and Flans cut their performance teeth on satiric sketch comedy at Lost Moon Radio, Red Flags is remarkable for its absence of caricature and the extent to which the script’s carefully constructed ironies are allowed to percolate just below the action without benefit of broad punch lines. Flans’ control is particularly impressive. She subtly nudges her non-actor scene partners through the script transitions —maneuvering the date through both the evening’s physical and thematic landscapes — all the while tending to the timing of Emma’s gradual emotional disintegration. The result is a journey that is as uncomfortably self-revealing as it is deeply affecting.
Various locations and performance time; exact address will be provided upon booking; through August 16. Capitalwperformance.com. Running time: roughly one hour.