Ever since the pandemic gave way to society opening up, many people have struggled to remember basic social cues and norms after spending so much time alone.
“Tracy Jones,” a new play by Stephen Kaplan at the JCC CenterStage Theatre, captures the cringe-inducing feeling of learning how to socialize again.
Notably, though, the play was actually written before COVID. Kaplan said the idea for a play about a woman named Tracy Jones who throws a party for all other women named Tracy Jones first came to him in 1998, but that he didn’t develop it into a full script until 2018.
Although written before the pandemic, now feels like an even more appropriate time for this piece.
“Tracy Jones” opens with the protagonist Tracy Jones — a highly neurotic woman played with great pathos by Erin-Kate Howard — waiting alone in an empty but cluttered restaurant called, appropriately, Jones Street Bar and Grill.
But even before the play begins, the set — designed by David Daniels — impresses with its back wall crowded with ephemera, from board games and road signs to ice skates and tennis racquets and other knickknacks.
At first, she has no one to talk to but the restaurant’s Personal Party Server/Host with the Most. This character gets less backstory than any of the Tracy Joneses, but Natalia Stornello does a phenomenal job bringing her eager perfectionism to life. Stornello performs with authentic generosity, even as she rightfully points out that it’s literally her job to be nice to Tracy. Though the class dynamics are understated, the play illustrates just how much people with wealth rely on service industry workers, including for emotional support.
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- PHOTO BY STEVE LEVINSON
- Natalia Stornello, left, bring her character's eager perfectionism to life in JCC's production of "Tracy Jones." Here she chats with co-star Vicki Casarett.
Tracy describes her dream of the perfect Tracy Jones party to the Host with the Most, and as the play unfolds the audience sees how the party, for the most part, tragically rejects her expectations. For starters, only two other Tracys show up - and one is a man.
The playwright, who visited Rochester as part of the National New Play Network’s “Rolling World Premiere” program, describes his creation as a “sad farce,” which is the perfect description of what this show achieves.
Like any farce, the situations are outrageous — who hires a blimp to advertise a party for people who share her name? — and feature much physical humor, including mishaps with a swinging door. Actor Christopher Conway conveys his Tracy Jones through exaggerated postures and body language, exemplifying this farcical style.
For audience members who are neutral on slapstick, the play also offers humor through fast-paced cultural references and amusing phrases that satirize corporate restaurant lingo, such as replacing “customers” with “kith and kin.”
But amidst the silly and over-the-top scenarios are characters who are experiencing deep anxiety and loneliness. Director Lindsay Warren Baker deftly manages the tone to invite laughter without mocking these very real emotions.
Every character is eager to be at a party but worried about the impression they’ll make. Two of the Tracy Joneses try to cope by controlling their surroundings, whether it’s by keeping the veggie tray on their preferred table, or abiding by the restaurant’s excessive liability rules. The male Tracy Jones numbs his loneliness with alcohol.
The production makes an absurdly comedic world feel vivid and convincing. As a result, some may find this show hard to watch. The characters are desperate for connection in ways that certainly hit close to home for me, as someone with anxiety who has needed to strengthen the “being able to socialize in person” muscle after quarantining. Almost the entire hour and 40 minutes straddles the line between evoking laughter and pity, and often both simultaneously.
I left the theater grateful that Rochester offers many opportunities to see new plays by living playwrights, especially ones that resonate directly with present day challenges. Though entertaining, “Tracy Jones” makes no false promise that one party can fix someone’s mental health, offering an important reminder that a push to return to “normal” won’t erase the traumas of the pandemic.
Katherine Varga is a freelance writer who covers theater for CITY.