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    Dead reckoning

    "Audit" raises issues about the value of our own lives through a movement-theater creation in which a supreme auditor puts a dollar value on the newly deceased based on what we value as a society.


    There was a time in 2001 and 2002 when dozens of plays opening in New York were hastily repackaged as "9/11 plays," whether out of opportunism or a sincere effort to contribute to understanding that almost unfathomable horror. Maybe now the subject can be approached less out of reflex and more out of reflection. "Audit" refers to Sept. 11 only obliquely, but it clearly grows out of post-9/11 thinking about life, death and the value of a person.

    Company: Theater Et Al.
    Written by: Ryan K. Vemmer with Brian Rogers, Aaron Rosenblum.
    Directed by: Brian Rogers.
    Cast: Stephanie Braun, Nicholas Capodice, Jennifer Lee Dudek, Megan Gaffney, David Green, Bob Harbaum, Gary Hennion, Stephanie Hyland, Mikeah Jennings, Kate Kita, Aaron Rosenblum, Rachael Shane, Dawn Springer, Jenny Tibbels.
    Music by: Brian Rogers.
    Sound design by: Brian Rogers.
    Set design by: Garin Marschall.
    Video by: David Chikhladze w/ Brian Rogers.

    Related links: Official site
    The Chocolate Factory
    44-02 23rd Street, 4th Floor, Long Island City, Queens
    April 9 - May 8, 2004

    The play is filled with repetitive movement by three "households" of three actors each — routine daily activities, like eating, brushing teeth, doing makeup, kissing a spouse at the door, using the toilet, which perhaps underscore the baseline ordinariness of people's lives. This choppy, nonlinear flow of activity disengages us somewhat from the play's message as it dramatizes the routine passage of days.

    But the play's fuzzy glimpses of meaning come into clearer focus as each character is called before the "auditor," an officious bean-counting inquisitor who eyes the recently deceased individual from a lofty cubicle and totes up his or her value as a person. He's St. Peter with an adding machine.

    As the auditor, Robert, explains, people have two kinds of value — their simple financial value, and their less tangible value to society, which he sometimes calls "public memory." This is something like what's actually done in wrongful-death lawsuits. A person's lifetime earning power is calculated, adjustments are made for the psychic value of the person's love of life and dearness to others, and a total is arrived at. A corporate lawyer who loved the symphony and fishing could be valued in the tens of millions; a schoolteacher who merely came home and made dinner for the family might be valued considerably lower.

    "Audit" takes the idea to absurd extremes, as the auditor incorporates other factors into his calculation. Erectile dysfunction? That'll cost you. Cared for a retarded sibling? That would be admirable — if you didn't resent every day of it. Wrote poetry in a private diary? Hmmm, that one seems to give the auditor some trouble.

    By the end, we've been left with an obvious surface message — something like: "You can't put a dollar amount on a creative soul." To get further than that, you need to impose your own interpretations. Here are a couple of the things that jumped out at me:

    • The basic question posed in the play is far from abstract — it's been in the news since the World Trade Center bombings, as families of the victims argued over how much they should get from the government's compensation fund. Wives of investment bankers went to the media to complain that they weren't getting enough millions of dollars to compensate for the loss of their husbands' high-six-figure incomes. (To my knowledge, no society wives came out to complain that the poor restaurant employees who also died weren't getting a fair share.)

    At the heart of their complaint was a confusion between two kinds of values — the lost-paycheck approach used in wrongful-death suits, which says that a stockbroker is more valuable than a dishwasher, and the humanitarian impulse that motivated the Sept. 11 fund, which says that we as a people wanted to do something to help all the families because all of the victims represented the same loss to our society. If the fund had been set up to compensate everyone equally, no one would have complained that their loved one who didn't come home was more valuable than somebody else's.

      Young children down wells, rescued female POWs, good-girl vs. bad-girl figure skaters, ex-stripper reality-TV contestants, Kennedy brides, unhappy princesses — all have proven their worth by exposing their beautiful misery for our consumption.
    • In the play, one of the auditor's "subjects," an attractive teenage girl, is kidnapped, leading to confusion about how to value her life. "Her future status is unknown," he notes. "Regardless, my calculations show a potential for novel and film rights regardless of whether she returns."

    This is an understated joke, but there's a serious truth behind it. As a culture, we really do love to snoop when bad things happen to good-looking people. Out of the hundreds of wives who are murdered every year, we've become fascinated with one — Laci Peterson — apparently because she was pretty and pregnant. Before that, Chandra Levy was the national obsession. Before that, JonBenet Ramsey. Before that, Nicole Brown Simpson. Young children down wells, rescued female POWs, good-girl vs. bad-girl figure skaters, ex-stripper reality-TV contestants, Kennedy brides, unhappy princesses — all have proven their worth by exposing their beautiful misery for our consumption. These we value — in terms of the time and money we're willing to spend on them — above teachers, scientists, senators and Nobel-prize-winning political dissidents. Here we are now, wretched beautiful women of the world — entertain us.

    There are as many ideas in "Audit" as you want to read into it. Certainly there's enough here to make you think a little about the value of your own life. You may find yourself considering whether the things you've done in life have value beyond what what the world is willing to pay you for them, and you don't even have to be freshly dead to ask yourself that.

    MAY 4, 2004

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