The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 4, 2005
Gordon Cox's new play The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book is billed as "a romantic comedy hijacked by a conspiracy thriller." Exactly; or maybe it's really the other way around. Either way, it's very cool, very entertaining—a satisfying work by a talented playwright that begs to be even better than it is.
The beginning is terrific. An attractive, smart, neurotic woman brings a sexy, articulate, jeans-clad intellectual to her apartment. They met at a movie theatre and now the question is, will they or won't they? Her name is Oona; his, improbably, is Grassy Noel. They talk like this:
GRASSY NOEL: I'm an artist. Right now I'm very interested in collage dispersal.
OONA: I've never heard of that.
GRASSY NOEL: I take apart collages by other people. I call it collage eclate.
OONA: Do other people call it vandalism?
GRASSY NOEL: Other people call it nihilism, but they're wrong. I have beliefs.
Obviously made for each other, the two connect. Blackout. Then, lights up, Grassy Noel lying naked on the bed. Under the covers is... Seth. An attractive, smart, neurotic man. Noel (that's what he likes to be called) is playing on both sides of the fence, as they say; he's also playing an even more dangerous and mysterious game, we realize, as he surreptitious scrutinizes Seth's laptop.
By Scene Three, the conspiracy thriller has started oozing its way onto the comic romance. The place is the Information Oversight Room at the Phone Company, which turns out to be where both Oona and Seth work. Their job is to monitor phone conversations and other information streams to make sure that nothing "unapproved" leaks out into the media. Their immediate boss is a super-efficient bureaucrat named Bud who spouts New Age Management aphorisms like "Crises are opportunities to fortify your inner achiever." Their organization is an Illuminati-like conglomerate that aims to control all of the information, and therefore all of the thoughts, coursing through the earth's myriad communication networks. If something crops up that's counter to their aims, it gets deleted. If someone crosses the organization, he or she gets eliminated. One of its weapons is a sinister-sounding operation called Identity Proliferation, which results in carbon copies of a person being substituted for the original.
It's a grand plot concept for our increasingly paranoid times, and Cox almost makes it work. Where it falls short is in the detail, of which there is too much, and in the scope, of which there is too little. This global meta-meta-agency seems far too focused on problems that feel trivial in the greater scheme of things (the storyline is tangled around a Matthew Shepard-like hate crime—important, yes, but surely in a world of Korean nukes and Social Security "reform" there are bigger fish to fry). And Bud, Oona, and Seth seem to be the only people doing a job that is almost inconceivably complex: banks of others need to be alluded to in order to give the Company the scary critical mass that it really needs.
Nevertheless, Cox does a good job weaving his web of conspiracy-theory suspense around his four characters. I will not tell you how Grassy Noel ultimately fits into things (but note his name). And I won't give any more of the convoluted story away, except to say that it's fanciful yet convincing. We leave the theatre asking: could this happen? (Or even: is this happening?) Cox should be pleased.
Director Suzanne Agins keeps it moving at the requisite fast clip, so that we mostly don't have time to think hard about what's happening but instead get swept up by the escalation of events. John C. Vennema is spectacularly good as Bud, who figures more importantly in the story than we initially assume; he anchors the play in a wild, subversive reality that suits it beautifully. Brandon Miller (Seth) and Natalie Gold (Oona) are also very effective, but Bill Dawes doesn't deliver the rugged romantic hero/anti-hero that Grassy Noel seems to be. Kimo DeSean's set is wonderfully inventive, using a small number of set pieces in ingenious ways; I particularly liked that the attractive geometric design on the stage floor turned out to be the "guide tape" used by the actors to correctly place the furniture—what a great idea!
The Secret Narrative of the Phone Book is a lot of fun. It's so well-crafted and so clever that I wanted it to be flawless. It's not, but it's at least several notches above most of the fare on offer at the moment (it is, for example, far more interesting and entertaining than Democracy). Give it a look.