There's a perverse universal principle that states that the harder one tries, the more likely one is to fail. It's only when one stops putting in so much effort that things happen. The great Taoist philosopher Alan Watts in his 1951 book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, summarizes the paradox this way: "When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float."
This "law of reserved effort" doesn't just apply to life; it also applies to art. Having recently experienced Crowded Fire's latest production, The Listener, it looks like the organization might be in need of some Taoist guidance. This latest world premiere collaboration between Crowded Fire and playwright Liz Duffy Adams malfunctions in the same way as do many of the company's other recent offerings: The creative team and performers appear to take what they do so very, very seriously and try so extremely hard to make Great Art, that they seem to lose sight of the fact that many of the plays they choose to stage (e.g. Slow Falling Bird, Big Death & Little Death, and We Are Not These Hands, to name a few) aren't really worth the effort in the first place. Add to this the company's signature overly sincere acting style and the slavishly deliberate approach to blocking, and you're faced with a litany of theatrical experiences that would try the patience of a Zen monk.
Still, I couldn't do my job if I didn't live in hope. Following the critical success of last season's Anna Bella Eema by Lisa D'Amour (which I sadly missed owing to summer travel plans) and the arrival of new co-artistic directors Cassie Beck and Kent Nicholson, I felt optimistic that the company's work would this time draw me in. But even though Adams' previous collaborations with Crowded Fire (The Train Play and One Big Lie) have been the most compelling Crowded Fire offerings I've experienced to date, my hopes on this occasion were dashed. With its overly simplistic, tiredly postapocalyptic vision of a throwaway Planet Earth abandoned by all humans save a persistent — and deeply annoying — few, The Listener is as insufferable as the worst of Crowded Fire's work.
Set far off in Earth's future in the last remaining human outpost (the majority of the populace having left centuries ago for the moon, now imaginatively renamed "Nearth"), The Listener tells a forbidding story of our planet's fate. At the start of the play, the inhabitants of Junk City, a trash-strewn metropolis piled high with the detritus of a long-fled civilization, go about their day-to-day business. Blue-collar "Finders" scour the town in search of "useful junk" to live off; white-collar "Jimmies" put the useful junk to use.
Meanwhile, the city's dignitaries do their work. The "Listener," a Dr.-Spock-meets-the-Dalai-Lama-like figure, spends her days cooped up in a hermit's cell patiently trying to make contact with life forms beyond the city walls by sending out periodic communiqués from, of all things, a tricked-out Pepsi machine; and the "Namer," Junk City's answer to Jim Jones or Osama bin Laden, painstakingly attempts to preserve his people's legacy by baptizing the most interesting bits of booty in the Finders' cache and keeping the citizens in line with fundamentalist religious doctrine. When enterprising Finders Smak and Jelly capture a lone researcher from Nearth by the name of John, the fortunes of Junk City change overnight. John's plan to "save" the abandoned souls marooned on his ancestors' planet by bringing them "home" to Nearth goes awry. But a burgeoning friendship with the Listener, brokered over the aforementioned soda dispenser, sets him and his captors on an unlikely course.
The overriding problem with Adams' play is that it tries too hard to be deep and meaningful while at the same time bordering on self-parody. The campy, sci-fi narrative might be fun if let loose. But it loses its zing, overburdened as it is with preachy critiques of everything from celebrity culture (Junk City's unofficial Gods include Madonna, Oprah, and Britney) to the present Iraq war. Adams' satire is embarrassingly obvious, as the Namer's Genesis parody shows: "In the beginning was the Tek and Sam saw that it was good ... The first people dwelt in the Mall of Us, which was a great temple, filled with gardens, and with everything the people needed. And in the center of the Mall was the tree of knowledge, heavy with fruit ..." We understand the joke immediately, but the speech rambles on nevertheless.
The same thing can be said of the Listener's constant attempts to communicate with the outside world: "Calling anyone again anyone is anyone out there this is Junk City calling again this is Junk City do you read me again do you read me come in please again come in please again come in please over." This monotonous mantra is repeated more than 10 times during the course of the drama. The playwright's overwrought approach to dialogue, which mixes the Finders' hip-hop-derived slang, the Listener's e.e. cummings-like patois, the Namer's TV preacher incantations, and John's regular-guy talk, is similarly wearing.
Seemingly oblivious to the play's problems, director Nicholson and his collaborators overexert themselves to bring it to life. The set is a precarious, wobbling construction that threatens to topple over onto the audience in an avalanche of old compact discs, rusty bric-a-brac, and skanky-looking Safeway plastic bags. The baggy, urchinlike thrift store costumes scream futuristic dystopia while making the actors look like they've stumbled off Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" video circa 1984. Unperturbed, the performers attack their task with maniacal devotion. Mugging abounds. Brows sweat profusely. They're all trying to act their little socks off, in other words.
"Trying," however, is not a great way to go about one's business in the world. Just as the law of reversed effort dictates that less, when it comes to both life and art, is more, so attempting to do something is never quite as helpful as actually doing it – and, preferably, doing it well. As Jedi Master Yoda so eloquently put it: "Do, or do not. There is no try."