Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
“Transparency” frequently places as one of the top words of the year in numerous media studies lately. In a world where home and voice assistance robots surround us, listening and waiting to answer our questions, and where most problems can be handled by a simple call or online chat with customer service representatives in a matter of mere minutes, transparency on issues remains a natural desire for humans as we evolve and continue learning and expanding our collective knowledge on just about every front of existence ranging from science to laws to political histories to food labels and dating profiles. “Transparency,” however, requires someone—or some company—to give up elucidating information.
Stephanie Salazar-Amaro’s “Basic Glitch,” now running at Theatre Row as part of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival, asks what would happen in a world not too far removed from ours if human bodies—in particular the female reproductive system—also had a customer service center to troubleshoot our problems and scour over our owner’s manuals? Part “Westworld” and part “The Office,” Ms. Salazar-Amaro’s play comedically dips into broad strokes of what it means for systems to not be working; whether reproductive, organizational, managerial, or even afterlife structure, each of the four characters faces an unsatisfactory system they seek to improve.
There’s Ramona, a spunky and disgruntled customer seeking answers about her underperforming reproductive system (Cassi Torres). There’s Magda (a hilariously flustered Laura Kay), the level-headed, over-worked customer service representative leading this particular department of The Center, the hub of “tech support” for all life problems ranging from the natural phenomenon (the creation of Sunsets) to bodily functions (there’s the Engineering, Distribution, and Production of new life etc…). Helping her is the over-zealous intern Lino (the equally passionate Thomas Valdez) who dreams of rising in the ranks and creating a better, smoother operation to help the customers. Then there’s Leanore (Patricia Perales), appearing rather as a non-sequitur as Ramona’s dead relative wandering around The Center trying to put her “Essence” (essentially her soul) to good use, a term she defines as helping her family as her work in finding purpose as a mother is never over. Originally sprung from a ten-minute play, this longer iteration struggles to find foothold in why it’s been expanded, pecking at ideas all over the place quite like an agitated bird at the window, as each character rotates being the center of attention, but none quite sinking their teeth into development or clear arcs of desire as they overlap in contrived journeys from room to room of The Center.
The most compelling part of “Basic Glitch” is the (sometimes) central question of the role of a woman as a mother versus who has the right to give or take away this role. Ramona seeks to fix her inability to have children, only to discover there are greater complications due to The Center’s engineering of her at the time of her own birth. While Ramona struggles to grasp the idea that she was designed to not have children (an engineering move that saved her mother’s life during birth but “ruined” her own adult life now), this fresh angle on just who controls a “right to choose” is particularly heartbreaking; when one takes into consideration the United States’ incredibly high maternal mortality rates compared to every other developed nation, mostly all due to preventable causes, this becomes a particularly compelling storyline for Ramona to navigate who exactly is making the choices on how her (or her Mother’s) body functions. Unfortunately, this storyline becomes hazy and breaks down credibility when other characters (especially when it is the only male character) try to explain that adoption is “the same” as childbirth. A fuller discussion on that topic is severely lacking in the current script, especially from the point of view or Ramona herself who is by no means uneducated, and so peppering such comments in haphazardly does more harm than aid, as she mostly skips over such considerations only to (spoiler alert) change her mind by the end of the play and embrace adoption as an alternate route to the motherhood role she seeks.
The comedy grows through the piece as Ramona gets more and more (or less and less) help from the customer service team, and the anomaly of a stronger bond between customer and representatives is formed. While The Center employees ultimately can’t solve her reproductive problem, they each help one another in different ways, mostly self-reflecting on what each of them contributes as different clogs in different systemic machines, and how that is affecting their happiness and jobs. The most illuminating and breakthrough scene occurred with Ramona declaring to Leanore (after she saved her from some wacky afterlife security troubles) that she does not have to have kids in order to understand what it means to love and sacrifice and do anything for her loved ones, like helping Leanore get out of trouble. Leanore, who views her role as a mother as paramount above all else even in death, struggles to let go and assume a new role responsible only to herself and her own happiness and existence away from others, but Ramona eventually helps her assume a new role on the Sunset committee, utilizing her colorful personality to show the world beautiful sunsets.
The play zig-zags through confusing and irrelevant scenes with questionable character development, but eventually it arrives at the conclusion that there are other ways beyond reproduction to express life and purpose, like through service to others, as Ramona does more helping of others through the course of the play than the so-called “customer service” reps. Ultimately, helping others makes you anything except a “basic glitch.”
“Basic Glitch” by Stephanie Salazar-Amaro is directed by Ashley Kristeen Vega. “Basic Glitch” stars Cassi Torres, Laura Kay, Thomas Valdez, and Patricia Perales. Design includes Danielle Dube (Sound and Lighting) and Abigail Harris (Set and Costume). Run time is ninety minutes, no intermission.
“Basic Glitch” runs at Lion Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W 42nd St) as part of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival August 6, 7, 9, and 21. For more information, please visit www.broadwayboundfestival.com.