Performance

On Stage, as on Paper, David Foster Wallace Commands Your Attention

A scene from A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, courtesy of The Public Theater.
A scene from ‘A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ (all photos by Brian Rogers, courtesy of the Public Theater)

A supposedly and in fact fun thing I did this month was attend A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, an experimental performance at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Created and directed by Daniel Fish, the 90-minute piece attempted to translate the writings of David Foster Wallace to the stage. Each night, Fish constructed a new show, piecing together excerpts from Wallace’s writings and interviews to create a novel variation on the core production. He then transmitted recordings of Wallace reading the chosen texts to the four-person cast via their headphones. The performers, who did not know in advance which passages Fish had chosen, recited Wallace’s words, often stumbling to keep up with the author’s breakneck delivery.

Though I’m skeptical about the true spontaneity of A Supposedly Fun Thing — parts seemed distinctly choreographed, and the version that Slate critic David Haglund saw sounds suspiciously similar to the performance I attended — the theoretical impetus for the invocation of spontaneity is sound. Much of Wallace’s writing amounts to a meditation on the ubiquity of distraction. His thousand-page tome Infinite Jest pits concentration and distraction against one another, engaging us only to divert us only to engage us once again. The dense narrative is punctuated throughout with a sequence of endnotes and footnotes-within-endnotes: the plot is gripping, but the novel reads like one long interruption.

Fish’s adaptation functioned as an antidote to a social environment characterized by an endless barrage of tweets and hot takes. The text of Infinite Jest is a static, fixed artifact — but each iteration of A Supposedly Fun Thing was unique and unpredictable, and more was at stake when we suffered lapses in attention. Fish deals in the fragile currency of live performance, where an overlooked moment rapidly becomes irretrievable and each instant threatens to change the course of the whole production. Wallace’s long, multi-clause sentences, read aloud, demanded the audience’s rapt attention.

A scene from 'A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again'
A scene from ‘A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’

The production was especially reliant on vigilant viewership because the possibility of error or mishap loomed so conspicuously large. The actors navigated a treacherous set strewn with tennis balls (an homage to the author’s favorite sport), and Fish challenged them to perform demanding physical tasks as they recited lengthy passages from Wallace’s writing. At one particularly anxiety-producing point, a performer did a set of jumping jacks until she was too breathless to go on with her monologue. Her discomfort was unsettling but captivating: as audience members, we were caught in the grips of suspenseful uncertainty, unable to avert our eyes from the prospect of impending disaster.

Though A Supposedly Fun Thing could easily have been disappointing, compelling in theory but flat and pretentious in practice, Wallace’s writing is conversational, and the show drew us into what seemed like a close-knit discussion. The excerpts Fish selected were supremely human: nervous, intimate, anxious to be liked. And at its best moments, the show demonstrated a vulnerability that was achingly likable. Never before have I so enjoyed watching something so difficult to watch.

A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again ran January 7–16 at the Public Theater in New York as part of the Under the Radar Festival.

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