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Round House Theatre’s sweet and funny new Web series serves up covid-19-era life in 10-minute slices
Contemporary American life can be summed up in the cry from the heart issued by Craig Wallace in the first episode of the covid-19-era Web series “Homebound.”
“Please help,” the actor says. “I’ve become a potato.”
In virtual terms, he means this concretely. He’s managed, through some bumbling misuse of his keyboard, to convert his online face into a talking spud. But it’s also true that, as Alexandra Petri’s endearing script suggests, potato conversion is a not a bad way to conceptualize our collective pandemic stasis.
That Petri’s metaphor requires no further explication is as meaningful a statement as any about our national predicament, and the funniest one in “Homebound,” a wholesome slice-of-life Web series created by Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. Intended both to give work to Washington-area playwrights and actors and to take the temperature of this odd moment, the series is a modest tonic. A 10-minute episode once a week seems absolutely the right dosage for this refreshingly lighthearted regimen.
Round House describes the project as a “chain” Web series: the bare essentials of the plot were outlined at the start by the company’s artistic director, Ryan Rilette, who guides the episodes with Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson. Set in and around the District, the continuing story concentrates on the housebound travails of two characters named for the actors who play them: Wallace and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. Each writer receives a script from the author of the prior episode, to take the plot in practically any direction they want. Several other actors — Chinna Palmer, Alina Collins Maldonado, Jamie Smithson, Yao Dogbe, Lynette Rathnam, Helen Hedman and Maya Jackson — make single episode appearances.
Petri, a Washington Post columnist and playwright with a bionic funny bone, kicked off the series on April 27. This week, Episode 4, by Liz Maestri, debuted. The entire series is archived on Round House’s website, with the final installment expected to post on June 29.
“Homebound” is a particularly inspired deployment of a theater company’s resources during the shutdown. Other groups in the region, such as Signature Theatre (“Signature Strong Live!”), Shakespeare Theatre Company (“Shakespeare Hour Live!”) and Olney Theatre Center (“Streaming Saturdays”) have gone the talk-show route with original online programming. (Disclosure: I’ve appeared on all three and moderate some of Olney’s Facebook Live panels.) But Round House has stepped up with narrative-driven content of a more interpretive nature. While the series is offered free, you wonder whether it could be the planting of a new offshoot with deeper roots. The tag of every “Homebound” episode has Rilette, a la a PBS pitch person, making a plea for viewer support.
As one might expect from a Web series emerging not from one writers’ room but from the laptops of 10 free agents, the style and tone of each installment of “Homebound” diverges pretty distinctly from the one before. That feels like a fringe benefit on this occasion: The voices and predilections of each writer permeate this short-subject entertainment. In Petri’s episode, “Connect!,” there’s a playful absurdist development of how we can easily — even accidentally — adopt an online alter ego. Then, in Karen Zacarias’s second episode, “Human Resources,” an embryonic romantic comedy begins to take shape.
Farah Lawal Harris’s Episode 3, “We Wear the Mask,” goes in a more contemplative, epistolary direction, illuminated by the serenity of Chinna Palmer’s character: She trades FaceTime messages with her uncle Craig and dances by herself at home. For Episode 4, “Together Alone,” Maestri shifts into a farcical gear, with a Zoom therapy session interrupted by a minor, um, bathroom emergency.
The gentle, sweet-and-sad countenance of Ebrahimzadeh’s Maboud — unemployed and single — is a winning match for Wallace’s upbeat, indefatigable Craig. The writers so far all understand how to draw on the actors’ personalities; like guests on a cable comedy series by Larry David or Lisa Kudrow, the supporting cast seems delighted to be playing along.
The one major character not credited is portrayed by Technology. By dint of theme, exposition, production and means of distribution, “Homebound” would not be possible without this key player. And the more the writers, designers and technicians have fun with the digitizing of our relationships in this stay-at-home period, the more engaging the series becomes.
So far, it is fair to say that “Homebound” is a pretty well-baked potato.
Homebound, a chain Web series directed by Ryan Rilette and Nicole A. Watson. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; original music, Matthew M. Nielson. A new episode free every Monday through June 29. roundhousetheatre.org.