Benchmark premieres a dystopian current-day in ‘You Will Get Sick’

Parker is a gloomy little man who’s not feeling well. He’s sick, sick with something or other, but he can’t bear to say it aloud or to tell his family and friends. His need to tell someone is so great that he posts fliers in his urban neighborhood offering to pay $40 — no, just $20 — to someone who’ll call him so he can tell them … something.

That he’s sick.

So begins You Will Get Sick, a dystopian slice of life that feels like a punctuation mark for the pandemic — a semi-colon, perhaps, since we’re still kind of in this thing. Parker (Peter Trinh) doesn’t seem to have COVID, or any kind of plague; it’s a vague respiratory illness that finds him literally coughing up hay, and which later starts to make his limbs useless.

And while Parker has a sister in the city (Sonsharae Tull) willing to help, he ultimately finds himself alone and at the mercy of an uncaring healthcare system.

Or not quite alone. The woman who responds to his ad is at first wary of what he wants from this gig. When he tells her, she agrees to accompany him to meet his sister and be the one who tells her he’s sick.

In a twist on the Uber economy, Callan (nicely played with mercenary dreariness by Edith Weiss) starts to insinuate herself into Parker’s life after her initial tasks are done. Operating as a stand-in for our own wobbly safety net, she pursues a transactional friendship with him that’s heartbreakingly realistic: Alone and sick, he ends up relying on her to do everything from push him around in a wheelchair to getting him a drink of water — all of which she assigns a cash value to. Peter gets nothing until he forks it over.

Peter Trinh and Sonsharae Tull | Photo: McLeod9 Creative

You Will Get Sick is set in a nondescript “Big City” and, later, “The Midwest.” Importantly, it’s set in The Time Before Cellphones, leaving information gaps between the characters that add to Parker’s isolationism. Overhead, giant birds are an omnipresent threat, and one of the characters is a guy hawking insurance against them (Brian Kusic). Call them representative of all the threats we face in life, the birds are yet another layer of concern in a gray world where not a lot goes well for the characters.

(Benchmark always does sound well in its small black-box theatre, and Jason Ducat’s birds and other city sounds add a lot to an otherwise stark set.)

I was on the fence about whether playwright Noah Diaz’s second-person approach works out here. On the one hand, the very title helps draw us in with its ominous suggestion that we’re observing a series of events that will most certainly catch up to us one day. On the other, second-person typically requires narration of some sort, and in this case it’s provide by a just-off-stage Josue Miranda. Some of the narration is necessary, but a lot of it is redundant to the action taking place before us. That said, Miranda does a nice job with it, and it eventually blends into the action well enough as not to be distracting.

Director Christy Montour-Larson chose to configure this in the round, and with few set pieces, there’s plenty of room for the actors to work. Tables, chairs, a bed and even a shower roll in and out, and Tull, Kusic and Weiss play multiple characters ranging from co-workers and hospital staff to waiters and cabbies. It’s a strong, flexible cast that helps establish a tone that, while it’s not quite total desperation, nonetheless has an Orwellian vibe that doesn’t suggest much of a way out.

Weiss is a standout as Callan, a wannabe actor who is ludicrously prepping for an audition as Dorothy in a community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Not only is she at least 40 years too old for the part, she’s also a terrible singer. Despite all of the ills that befall Parker, it’s Callan who stirred the most empathy in me as a representative of the grasping, gasping throngs of people trying to make a go of it in a country that doesn’t give a flying fuck about their wellbeing.

Maybe those giant crows overhead making horrendous noises are insurance companies refusing payment, or red-state politicians banning books and restricting abortion. They could be the ones who’ve ruined the air so much that people are coughing up hay on their way to being totally incapacitated. But one also has to wonder if having one of them pluck you off the street and carry you off might not be a relief from everything down here.

In You Will Get Sick, the answer isn’t clear, but the play works well at depicting the 2022 zeitgeist of malaise and fear that’s consuming us. And while it may not be much of a respite from all of that, it’s a neat bit of theatre that might just make you feel like your own situation isn’t all that bad.