Review: 'A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter' at the Public Theater

Review: ‘A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter’ at the Public Theater

Review: ‘A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter’ at the Public Theater

Review: ‘A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter’ at the Public Theater

In the theater, my stranger and I — I still do not know his name, or the bottom of his face — sat at the table under the stage lights and submitted to the script: a neat stack of printed notecards fitted in a small gap at the bottom of the glass. An arrow, pointing my way or his, indicated who was to take each card. On these we read our lines and stage directions.

“Hello,” one stranger begins.

“Hi,” says the other.

“It’s good to see you,” the first responds, and what is striking is that this line of dialogue turns out to be perfectly true. It also hints at what this exercise asks and allows: that we look closely at each other, but kindly; that we take turns speaking and listening; that we try to imagine the contours of each other’s humanity. In this riven culture, when compassion for the stranger can be in much shorter supply than knee-jerk antipathy, these are not small gestures.

Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, a.k.a. 600 Highwaymen, give the strangers in “An Encounter” a common goal — to get through the script together.

“In silence, look across from you and imagine what keeps them up at night,” one stage direction reads. “In silence, imagine something they’re coping with,” says another.

They have us draw pictures on the glass together with our fingertips (my stranger is a better artist than I am), tell each other scripted stories and ask and answer a laundry list of offbeat yes-or-no questions: “Have you ever broken a bone?” “Have you ever broken a heart?” When my stranger answered yes to that one, his dark eyes got so soulful that I felt his anguish and wanted to know more. But that of course is not permitted.

“An Encounter” is less about the details of our lives than “A Phone Call” and more about spending time in the physical presence of another human being. I know that my stranger has a passport, can’t drive a stick shift and likes to dance. I know he has neat handwriting. My guess is that he is an actor and that he, like me, grabbed at the chance for this experience out of eagerness for theater’s return.

But is this theater? Not really, though the script has a beautifully solid structure and the ending is both startling and powerful. Rather, this piece uses tools of theater — text, storytelling, the agreement to gather at an appointed time to have a collective experience — to achieve goals of theater, foremost the stoking of empathy and compassion. How extraordinarily “An Encounter” does this struck me only afterward.


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