Theater review

Nyce (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) isn’t like the other high schoolers. She’s different — and in an act possibly conceived to convince herself of that fact, she begins a pen-pal relationship with death-row prisoner Jim (Avery Clark) in Keiko Green’s “Wad.”

“Wad” is now streaming online from ACT Theatre, but in some alternate universe, it’s on ACT’s mainstage as a showcase for three of its core company members: Green, Guyer-Mafune and Clark. In this universe, the production hints at the promise of what theater filmed remotely could be while simultaneously cementing the hope that it’s a form whose necessity will soon expire.

“Wad” was largely shot on Zoom, but director Ameenah Kaplan elevates the production far past the grids-of-heads aesthetic that we’ve become accustomed to when hearing the dreaded phrase, “Zoom play.” This is a visually interesting and formally savvy theater/video hybrid — and not for one second did I think it was preferable to what could have been done on stage.

A moot point? Yes. But it speaks to the innate theatricality of Green’s epistolary two-hander, which operates on a conceit that the two characters are communicating via wadded-up notes — hence the title.

Though their conversations ping back and forth in real time, the fragility of Nyce and Jim’s correspondence is underlined by sudden breaks in the flow when a letter goes unanswered. The effect doesn’t quite land when these two are literally on a video call together, and though Kaplan obfuscates that fact visually by mostly avoiding split-screen compositions, there’s no mistaking that echo-y Zoom audio.

On the other hand, Green’s darkly comic play might just be perfect for the current moment, given its examination of isolation’s effect on the soul. Both characters are boxed in inside the play’s two primary locations — Nyce’s bedroom and Jim’s cell — with convincing sets built by the actors themselves in their own homes. Guyer-Mafune and Clark did something like quadruple-duty on this shoot, also acting as camera operators and technicians.

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And Green has much more on her mind than just lonely souls looking for a connection. “Wad” delves into pop culture’s obsession with true crime, power dynamics between men and women and the morality of the death penalty.

Nyce finds Jim via writeaprisoner.com, and within their first few letters, she’s needling him for details on the double-homicide conviction that landed him on death row 20 years ago. He’s taken aback by her aggressive enthusiasm, but he’s also intrigued.

Guyer-Mafune, who excels at lacing eagerness with an ironic streak, is mercurial enough as Nyce that it’s not easy to pin down whether she’s concealing her true motivations from Jim or from herself or both. Green’s lithe dialogue abets, bending around corners you didn’t see coming.

Take Nyce’s admission that her interest in talking to a death-row inmate was spurred by listening to a podcast about the Golden State Killer. An apparently savvy observation about the commodification of death takes a turn.

“People wrote articles and TV shows and more podcasts, and there will probably be a movie before too long,” she says. “And people argue about which is better … and these basic-ass people play drinking games to TV shows about you. And cast hot movie stars to play you. And kind of forget all about the actual you.

“But I would never do that — forget you. So you’ll live on no matter what, because I see you.”

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As Jim, Clark plays a man determined to forget — or at least, pretend. All attempts to steer the conversation away from the violence that put him here keep bumping up against an uncomfortable truth: There’s another act of violence coming in retribution, and it’s scheduled for just a few months from now.

A high schooler (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) imagines herself in the world of “The Crucible” in Keiko Green’s “Wad.” (Courtesy of ACT Theatre)
A high schooler (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) imagines herself in the world of “The Crucible” in Keiko Green’s “Wad.” (Courtesy of ACT Theatre)

Therein lies the imbalance. For Nyce, this correspondence is an act of transgression with minimal risk, a flight of fancy that’s underscored by the fantasy scenes that keep intruding: a hard-boiled noir, a confession scene a la “The Crucible,” a premonition of Jim’s execution, with Nyce as the executioner. For Jim, the conversation, and its attendant emotional and sexual frustration, dredges up a lifetime of rage.

“Wad” maintains a deep ambivalence about the effects of this experience on Nyce, but Jim’s mental state emerges crystalline and glistening in two late monologues where the truth comes out. Clark’s performance, racked with sudden vulnerability, draws us in as the details repel. In a play with sometimes diffuse aims, these monologues snap everything into focus. Even via Zoom, they reminded me what I love — and miss — about the theater.

‘Wad’

By Keiko Green; runs through Sunday, April 4; $38; streaming online from ACT Theatre at acttheatre.org/wad