"Disconnect," the aptly named new play by Anupama Chandrasekhar at the Victory Gardens Theater, is set in a collection agency in Chennai, India, where smart, ambitious and energetic young Indian workers assume pseudonyms like Jennifer and Michelle and try to persuade deadbeat citizens of the state of Illinois to pay their bills. It is not hard to anticipate the themes: the workers feel like they are a part of Chicago, even through they never have been there, and they live the irony of living in a poorer country and telling profligate, or recession-hit, Americans that their bills are past due. As such, much of the action, or what passes for the action in a very messy show, takes place with characters sitting at their desks and talking on the phone to Chicago.
Director Ann Filmer's dull, meandering, chaotic, really terrible production is full of showboating, disconnected acting and huge holes where basic credibility and cohesive narrative drive should reside. Not for a second — not for a single second — do you believe that there could possibly be anyone stateside on the end of those lines. There is no such commitment here. How could Filmer miss that in a play where phone calls are such a huge part of the action?
This production should be a wake-up call for Victory Gardens and its artistic director, Chay Yew. This is one of Chicago's most important theaters and while the loyal audience long has been willing to take a risk on a new play — indeed, loving that risk — they are entitled to certain minimum standards of competence. This show does not reach those standards.
Not that "Disconnect" is anywhere near ready for prime time, even though it already has been seen in London, where one suspects that it was given a much stronger production and also that its themes of Americans in over their heads with debt played to such a sympathetic audience that the drama's structural problems were overlooked. This is the first production in the United States, where that is unlikely to happen.
The actual situation is promising. Call centers, by their very nature, embody much of the unease caused, in many nations, by globalization. Indeed, who has not wondered about the life behind the agent on the phone, the one named Bob with the weird delay on the line? And if one is making excuses to dodge putting a check in the mail, or arguing over some late payment, one cannot help but wonder what the scripted caller is really thinking about this particularly problematic corner of the American way of life, especially since those who offer you help with your credit card can see all of your purchases on their screens.
Chandrasekhar, who is from Chennai but studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has stuffed many of these potent ideas into her one-act (although far too long for a one-act) drama. She knows what issues should be in play, but making a workable drama out of those issues is something else entirely.
One of the characters, Avinash (Kamal J. Hans) worries about the impact of these boiler rooms on the soul of India. The younger characters, played by Behzad Dabu, Arya Daire, Minita Gandhi and Debargo Sanyal, are trying to make money, or rise to the ranks of supervisor and super-collector, or they're just trying to get on the leader board, not unlike the salesmen of "Glengarry Glen Ross." The whole notion of outsourced debt collectors pits workers against workers, but also reveals the shift in the international power structure. All of that stuff makes fodder for a play — and you could even buy the notion, explored here, that some regular callers actually fall in love with their marks in Lakeview or Lincoln Square and are tempted to hit a few keys and cancel out their debts. But the storytelling just isn't cohesive. It feels like a play with some promise by a very smart beginner. It needs workshops, dramaturgical help, cuts and a rewrite.
And it needs a different, much subtler production that offers up a world in which you can actually believe. The acting here is just all over the map — parts are nothing less than excruciating to watch, as if no one really knows the rules of engagement, especially not when talking on the phone.
When: Through Feb. 27
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org