UNDER THE RADAR: A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN — AFTER DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
Daniel Fish returns to the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival with an ingenious take on the work of Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of forty-six. But A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again isn’t about the life or death of the Ithaca-born writer, nor is it a theatrical adaptation of the title short story. It’s not even a celebration of the written word; instead, the ninety-minute show, continuing at the Public’s Anspacher Theater through January 16, focuses on the spoken word, inspired by the way Wallace vocalized, whether narrating an audiobook, giving an interview, or making a speech. Moved by the rhythm, tone, and pattern of Wallace’s voice, Fish, who presented Eternal at last year’s Under the Radar Festival, scoured the archives of the David Foster Wallace Audio Project for essays, short stories, excerpts, and interviews with Wallace and created various setlists of the pieces over the last few years; one stretched to a four-hour marathon. But the audience doesn’t actually hear Wallace; instead, Fish sends Wallace’s audio recordings into headphones worn by performers Mary Rasmussem (Trade Practices), Jenny Seastone Stern (Our Planet), Therese Plaehn (Family Play), and John Amir (All Your Questions Answered), who repeat the words out loud. Fish often changes speeds in the recordings he feeds them, resulting in the actors’ sometimes having to speak very fast, using their bodies to help them keep up.
The current iteration of the show includes such Wallace writings as his outrageously funny 1996 Harper’s piece “Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise”; “Forever Overhead,” which takes place at a swimming pool as a boy turns thirteen; and “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” an essay/book review that delves into Wallace’s longtime love of tennis. In fact, the sport plays a central role in the production. As the audience enters the theater — seating is general admission — a tennis machine is shooting yellow balls at a picture of Tracy Austin taped to the wall. The tennis balls remain on the stage throughout the show. The actors, who at one point move all the balls to the back of the stage, are in a kind of tennis match themselves, waiting for the words to come to them (they don’t know which parts Fish will send them or how fast he’ll make them) as if preparing for the next tennis shot, ready to volley Wallace’s words at the audience, but it goes beyond mere repetition and into a sheer love of language. Even at ninety minutes, A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again feels a little too long — when you’re reading a short story or listening to an audiobook, you have the ability to stop for a while and ponder what you’ve read or heard, but in this case there’s no off switch — but it’s most definitely a fun thing, even if we haven’t decided whether we’ll ever do it again. But one thing we’ll definitely do is read or listen to a whole lot more by Mr. Wallace.