On the surface, Anne Marie Healy’s What Once We Felt (through November 21) is a sci-fi fantasy about the last fiction novel that will ever be printed, and the author’s frantic, risky decision to get it published. But, burried a couple of levels deeper into the metaphoric sediment of the script, there’s also some important commentary on the death of the culture associated with the publishing industry and the nostalgia (real or imagined) that goes along with it. Though some critics argue, rather densely, that the play says nothing at all, Healy is asking a very important question: Besides the physical book in our hands, what other elements of literature are we in danger of losing as print becomes obsolete? (And what evil monstrosity is going to replace it?)
The play’s aging literary agent, Astrid (played by a perfectly boozy and stereotypical yet totally refined Ellen Parker), acts like an arbitrator in the fight between the multi-media experience and traditional print. Along with Laura the editor (a champion of the former played by Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Claire the publishing maven (proponent of profit, played by Opal Alladin), these characters give the audience anecdotal glimpses into the way things used to be, what the industry has become, and where it might be headed. I enjoyed this aspect of the play, offering a different way of thinking about the other things that will disappear as print does. I wish the whole play had been about this.
Astrid’s declaration late in the play that in her day, "Publishing was a two martini lunch, witty alcoholic writers, books that actually created conversations and a damn good time," (the audience clapped!) was a welcome break from the overwrought science fiction staples (barcodes on bodies, Big Brother checkpoints to get into a Manhattan-esque island) and the whiny, oblivious author, Macy O. Blonsky (played by a wonderfully volatile Mia Barron), who throws tantrums left and right about how nobody has actually read her book. This play is multi-faceted to say the least, and although ideas about social divisions, overbearing government agencies known only by their three-letter acronyms, and the sad fact that people in the future will stop having sex (or at least offspring-producing sex, as men have become extinct), were all touched upon broadly, it might have been better had these tropes taken a backseat to the “death of the publishing industry” plot, or perhaps not have been taken along for the ride at all.
Macy O’Blonsky has written the next great American novel, titled "Terror’s Peon," and despite its obvious merits she is having a really tough time getting it published. This is a situation that every author finds themselves in at one point or another right? (Healy herself had the premiere of the play in Chicago pushed back almost a whole year and then subsequently moved to New York.) What is interesting is that the world Healy creates gives the impression that everything and anything gets published (at least for download) and we are left to surmise that Macy’s book is having trouble because it is actually good literature. Cue the knowing audience nods and chuckles because everyone agrees that true art can never go mainstream. Whether or not this is the case is left up in the air, however, as it turns out that the only way she can get it published is to lend her identity to the publisher (so that the publisher can ‘download’ a baby) and in doing so corrupt her good moral name and endanger her public image, possibly go to jail, etc, etc.