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‘The Lights Are On’ Review: Catastrophizing About the Future

Owen Panettieri’s play “The Lights Are On” offers a dispiriting preview of what many of our homes may look like in the future.

The muddled play, a co-production of New Light Theater Project and Embeleco Unlimited, takes place in the living quarters of Liz (Danielle Ferland), a doomsday prepper who spends her days pacing about her storm-boarded house, examining sundry supplies and sorting jars of canned food. Five years earlier, Hurricane Prudence ravaged her home. “Afterwards, there wasn’t a lot worth saving. It all had to go,” she matter-of-factly tells her neighbor Trish (Jenny Bacon).

The play begins when a discombobulated Trish visits Liz because she thinks someone may have broken into her home. The two haven’t spoken in seven years, yet nothing in Sarah Norris’s direction conveys a sense of estrangement. Instead, simply hearing Liz’s voice seems to lower Trish’s blood pressure by several degrees, and soon they are chatting as easily as if Trish had stopped by for a coffee chat after Sunday services.

Initially, the pair present a study in contrasts: Trish, with her silk top and expensive haircut, comes from inherited wealth, whereas Liz, with her loosefitting flannel shirt and mom jeans, is working class. Yet as they catch up and catastrophize about the world, certain selfish similarities between the two women emerge. Trish has always been too preoccupied with her own life to consider the needs of her neighbor; during Hurricane Prudence, she refused to admit Liz and her son, Nathan (Marquis Rodriguez), into the safety of her home. For her part, Liz has turned her house “into a prison” for herself and her son, Trish notes.

An ambient sense of the uncanny pervades the play, but the purpose is unclear. What to make of the fact that only Trish can hear something pawing at plaster? Why is a knob on a cabinet affixed to the wrong side? Why do characters refer to nonexistent “food on the stove” and mistake tea for wine? And any tension the play accrues is repeatedly dispelled by retirement-ready stereotypes of the hysterical woman (Trish) and ball-and-chain mother (Liz).

Panettieri’s vision of capitalism is also cartoonish, whether the absurd “Transformers”-sounding names of the giant corporations Trionics and Meglamax or the fanciful notion that Liz herself has a capitalist streak. She has a side hustle selling provisions at “very reasonable” markups, according to Nathan, but we never see her take orders from customers, print packing slips or prepare items for shipment. The range of stuff overtaking her kitchen like kudzu does not appear to be for sale, but stockpiled in case of an apocalyptic event. Which might as well have arrived at the end of the play’s 95 molasses-slow minutes. While Panettieri’s drama has no trouble imagining the end of the world, imagining convincing characters is a tougher task.

The Lights Are On
Through Nov. 11 at Theater Row, Manhattan; newlighttheaterproject.com. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

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