By Annette Hinkle
You know the drill. Quiet night. Sound asleep. Suddenly you are awakened by a chirp.
It’s not enough to rouse you out of bed, so soon, you are once again fast asleep.
Then you hear the chirp again.
Now you know what’s going on. The battery in the smoke detector is on its way out and it won’t stop until you deal with it. You’re wide awake. As you curse your luck, then stub your toe on the foot of the bed in the dark to find a new battery, there is just one thing on your mind.
“Why does this only happen at two in morning?”
It’s a familiar refrain and just the sort of technological double-edged sword that so often defines life in the digital age.
On the one hand, technology makes our lives easier, and in the case of smoke detectors, much safer. On the other hand, when technology goes wrong, we are driven to the brink of madness. Just look at this past week’s ransomware attack across the globe which shut down computers at hospitals, government offices and even FedEx.
Technology, gadgets, social niceties and good inventions gone wrong are the recurring themes (some would say nightmares) of Michael Frayn’s “Alarms and Excursions,” the next play to be offered by Hampton Theatre Company (HTC).
The comedy is presented as a series of short vignettes highlighting how existence is complicated by the very devices and cultural cues that have been designed to make our lives and social structure run smoothly.
Diana Marbury directs this four-hander, which opens at the Quogue Community Hall on May 25. It stars familiar HTC players Andrew Botsford, George A. Loizides, George A. Loizides and Jane Lowe.
“It’s definitely been a busy rehearsal period,” confessed Ms. Marbury in a recent phone interview. “Doing farce is always busy, with movement of props and such things. It takes up a good amount of rehearsal time.”
“It’s also a pretty wild chase,” she added.
Mr. Frayn, the author of “Noises Off,” is known for this sort of thing. Another of his plays, “Copenhagen,” was written not long before “Alarms and Excursions.” Though one is a drama and the other a comedy, Ms. Marbury finds a strong parallel in the two plays.
“‘Copenhagen’ is about the development of the neutron bomb, and though ‘Alarms and Excursions’ is focused on the gadget filled world, it does have its detonations,” she explained. “It’s kind of like we’re always at the mercy of these inanimate objects and you just never know what’s going to happen.”
The goal in life and on stage, she notes is to develop a relationship with these gadgets that are supposed to make things easier without allowing them to wreak havoc on our lives. The long and short of it is that inventions come not only with instructions, but consequences. Often for the humans who own them, it’s a case of unrequited love.
“It’s a double-edged sword. A hammer is good for hitting nails, but it hits your thumb sometimes,” she said. “This play is a very humorous look at our relationships with technology and our inability to communicate with each other. It’s a confusion that comes with the uniformity of life in this time.”
Interestingly enough, Mr. Frayn wrote “Alarms and Excursions” back in 1998. That’s ancient history when it comes to modern technology and at the time, the iPhone was yet a dream, internet access was provided via dial-up service, and computers were still a luxury for the few.
Wisely, Mr. Frayn avoids including inventions in the play that were so cutting edge at the time it was written that they could have been outdated by now. Instead, he focuses on things like over-complicated wine bottle openers — a universal and timeless tool if ever there was one.
“He really gets into the depth of the issue and he has a way of working through what makes sense,” explained Ms. Marbury who adds that because Mr. Frayn is a consummate re-writer, there are multiple versions of “Alarms and Excursions,” and directors are able to pick the version that includes the vignettes they prefer.
For the HTC production, two separate pieces take place at a dinner party and relate directly to one another — one occurs before the party, the other afterwards. Another vignette explores a situation in which two couples find themselves occupying side by side and identical hotel rooms.
“This one deals with how, these days, you have to make things more affordable by building things all the same,” Ms. Marbury said. “It’s about how patterns get repeated and how that affects people who fall into similar patterns.”
Be it hotel room layouts, malls or suburban streets, the message is clear — familiarity breeds routine — just like for mice in a lab maze who, through time and repetition, come to innately know whether to turn left or right to find the cheese. While the messages throughout the play are somewhat serious, this is a comedy and Ms. Marbury’s job as the director is to make it work as such.
“In any farce or comedy, it’s about the pace,” she said. “I thought it was funny how in Michael Frayn’s plays, particularly in his farces, actors can be injured by making a wrong move.”
“The biggest challenge for the actors is to find their character from one piece to another given all that is changing around them,” she said. “The actors have been awesome and that’s made it more enjoyable. We do laugh a lot at these rehearsals, which is healthy. This is definitely a lot of fun.”
“In truth, it’s our life in today’s world.”
Ironically, as if Ms. Marbury needed any proof that life does, indeed, imitate art, during the course of rehearsals for this production, she experienced her own technological meltdown at home.
“My computer went bananas and then I was hacked and then I changed my password and lost all my contacts,” she said. “It took hours with my server to straighten it out.”
“For the last 10 years it’s been no problem. Until now.”
It sounds like Michael Frayn just might be trying to tell her something.
The Hampton Theatre Company’s production of Michael Frayn’s “Alarms and Excursions” opens May 25 and runs through June 11 at Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue, Quogue. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays, May 27 and June 10 at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 10 at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors (except Saturday evening), $15 for under 35 and $10 for students under 21.
There will be a special benefit performance on Saturday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $175 ($300 for a pair). Group rates and dinner/lunch packages available. Get tickets at hamptontheatre.org or call 1-866-811-4111 (OvationTix).