Fran Solgan, Billy Van Zandt, Glenn Jones, Jane Milmore, and Barbara Bonilla in YOU'VE GOT HATE MAIL.
BOTTOM LINE: Streamlined comedic writing and strong performances make this technologically focused play immensely amusing, despite its occasional triteness.
Considering how much time we as a society now spend communicating with each other via email and text messages, staring at electronic screens rather than actual faces, it makes sense for there to be a play consisting solely of text messages and emails. This is the premise behind You’ve Got Hate Mail, which focuses on the negative effects of a husband discovered to be a having an affair with his young secretary. While the press description, describing it as a comedy dramatized from emails and text messages, may lead one to envision perhaps viewing electronic screens instead of live actors, this thankfully is not the case. The play uses a setup similar to that of The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss, and What I Wore: actors are seated and read off lines, however in this case, the actors are seated at coffeehouse-esque tables reading off of their laptop screens, and occasionally off of their blackberries. The actors never actually interact with one another and instead communicate solely via their emailed and texted messages. This could potentially be a dull set up, but the energy of the ensemble serves to make up for this fact. The play was written by its two lead actors, Jane Milmore and Billy Van Zandt, who worked together while writing for sitcoms; their familiarity with laugh track-oriented material is clear in the fast paced jokes that fill this farcical comedy.
Richard (Van Zandt) is a philandering lawyer whose most recent case of infidelity involves his young sassy, sexually brazen secretary Wanda (Fran Solgan). Richard fetters away most of his day sending raunchy emails to Wanda detailing fantasy sexual scenarios and making plans to meet her at a hotel or in the work bathroom for a quickie. Trouble strikes when Richard’s naïve wife Stephanie (Milmore) gets her first computer and sets up her first email account (something that seems a bit unbelievable in 2011). She is so excited at her first foray into technology that she incessantly emails Richard at work with updates on her new explorations into the world wide web. Richard dutifully responds with brush offs about needing to get back to work and having to work late. While alternating between steamy emails planning a hotel meet up with Wanda and brush off emails to his wife, Richard accidentally sends a raunchy email meant for Wanda to Stephanie by mistake. Stephanie is shocked and disgusted by the X-rated message (which could perhaps explain why Richard would stray in the first place), unsure if it was in fact intended for her. She passes the email along to her friend Peg (Barbara Bonilla) who opens Stephanie’s eyes to what is really going on. Peg begins to write Wanda emails posing as Richard, enabling her to follow the two of them to the hotel and present Stephanie with photographic evidence. Richard, meanwhile, seeks guidance and help from his best friend George (Glenn Jones), a middle aged divorcee who provides many of the play’s jokes due to a caddish attitude and misuse of chat abbreviations, as well as a strange obsession with emailing photoshopped nude photos of Hillary Clinton.
Richard eventually leaves Wanda behind for the hope of saving his marriage as Stephanie moves out and sees Richard solely through couples’ therapy sessions. Wanda soon becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes, written off as cheap hussy with “a skin problem.” Eventually Peg and George who have never met in person somehow unbelievably get into contact, becoming both a couple and conspiring to save Stephanie. The amount of cruelty and insults hurled at Wanda are amusing but also seem a bit mean, considering that it takes two people to carry on an affair. (The many insults regarding Wanda’s unattractive appearance seem hard to believe given that attractive actress Fran Solgan bears a striking resemblance to Zooey Deschanel.) His friend George even frames Wanda for stealing office supplies so that she is immediately fired and unable to interfere with Richard’s attempts at reconciliation with his Stephanie. While everything seems predictable and typical at this point, the story thankfully takes an unexpected turn, providing unexpected outcomes for all of the characters. This makes the show more enjoyable for an audience perhaps disappointed at the prospect of Stephanie taking back the slimy Richard.
The play makes use of the traditional farce style, utilizing mistaken identities, word play and ever changing romantic entanglements while offering little in the way of character development. The entire cast’s strong, energetic performances work to make up for the complete lack of actual physical interaction between characters. Solgan in particular gives an admirable performance as Wanda, with enough energy and facial expressions to make up for the fact that she is always seated. Her convincing performance makes her character’s obliviousness, neediness, and vulgarity completely believable and laugh-inducing. Director Gary Shaffer guides the cast well, with all jokes and physical humor running seamlessly. You’ve Got Hate Mail may include some unbelievable scenarios and limited character development, but it takes an innovative spin on a traditional comedic set-up, one that certainly rings true in our technologically addicted age.
(You've Got Hate Mail plays at Triad Theatre, 158 West 72nd Street, through December 30, 2011. Performances are Fridays at 7PM. Tickets are $30 and there is a two drink minimum. Try discount code ROFL for $20 tickets. To purchase tickets visit smarttix.com or call 212.868.4444.)