“Death by PowerPoint” delivers remarkably good theater. The new comedy fully crafted by James Robinson establishes a premise, engages the audience with entertaining notions, then through unexpected twists, challenges conventional thinking and forces a reset of the mind.
In what we come to believe are highly practiced speeches offered competitively at a presenters conference, four winsome characters offer life lessons gleaned either from their own experience or from 20 minutes with Wikipedia. Ah, but there are actually six players in the room: the four actors, the audience they are addressing, and their collective PowerPoint presentations projected on a massive screen that backdrops two-thirds of the stage. The latter might be thought of as an homage to the presentation technology. But probably not. Like so many “slide shows” of their type, these are unapologetically present and prone to their users’ overproduction. And yet that’s when the PowerPoint becomes its own personality and frequently part of the show’s hilarity.
If Robinson hadn’t disclosed it in the show notes, it would never be known that this film director (“Still Breathing”) is taking his freshman turn on the boards. What he does so competently is create a moment for intimate theater that works extraordinarily well. As playwright, Robinson brings us language that is smart and funny, and it drives deeply into the places of our own interiors that are dark or dangerous or dialogue-demanding.
Robinson has crafted speeches that would be the dream of any monologist. Masterfully bringing them to life are Scarlett Bermingham, Eric Pierce, Emilly Thomas and Michael Riffle. (Actors Rachel Addington and Ryan Klayman are subbed-in on certain dates of the run.) All portray contestants in the “23rd Annual National Global Influencers’ Finals.” Their Lucy, Mark, Joan and Matthew exude passion, confidence, knowledge and varying shades of narcissism in their battle to be best. The play is not without verbal exchange among the players, but offers precious little of it. While we may accept that convention, a little more interaction might have elevated the pace of the performance.
What the PowerPoint screen is to obtrusiveness, the overall design of the show is not. Four folding chairs, a few hand properties and a wardrobe article are what the characters have to play upon – that, and a commanding cross-stage pace in each monologue to reclaim the eyes of the audience from the screen which is forever emblazoned with statistical oddities or images that comfort or provoke. Director Robinson blocks it all well, but without much chat between characters, this is not a show that relies on movement.
“Death by PowerPoint” challenges cultural pretense in maybe the healthiest way: with a whole lot of humor.