When you enter the Chocolate Factory to see Daniel Fish’s beguiling A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (After David Foster Wallace), the long white-walled room is littered with rows of livid yellow tennis balls. An automatic serving machine—consider the lob-ster, get it?—is bouncing more balls haphazardly off the walls. (They sometimes fly into spectators on the rebound.) David Foster Wallace was a tennis nut, and you couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for his career. He was a literary lobbing machine: forever shooting out perfectly calibrated propositions, hoping someone would knock them back (but maybe never getting the returns he wanted).
Part séance, part theatrical eulogy, and part eerie karaoke show, A…Supposedly Fun Thing is based on audio recordings of Wallace being interviewed and reading aloud from his essays and short stories. Five performers, clad in jeans, sneakers, hoodies and sloganed T-shirts—looking like a group of college students, part of the demographic likely to be earnest Wallace readers—sit frowning as they concentrate on Wallace’s voice in matched sets of headphones. Soon, they begin to recite portions of Wallace’s work in time with the man himself—sometimes solo, sometimes in duets or choruses. Meanwhile, Fish sits behind a soundboard, routing the audio signals to the performers’ ears in real time (they keep the headphones on throughout). This leads to poignant moments of furious listening, as actors struggle to get in sync with their cues and match their own delivery to Wallace’s headlong recitation. (Occasionally, you can just barely detect a ghostly murmuring of Wallace’s voice emanating from the earpieces or in the ambient soundtrack between sequences.)
You could think of A…Supposedly Fun Thing as a cross between Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s syllable-perfect re-performances of recorded speech and Elevator Repair Service’s transpositions of literature to the theater. Fish is attempting to restore the spontaneity of thought to Wallace’s writing, and looking for the elusive interval when spontaneous talk begins to acquire literary shape.
As the piece goes on, we hear the actors, channeling Wallace, excoriate over-opulent cruise ships; extol the virtues of David Lynch; link the unselfconscious physical grace of champion athletes to the banality of their public speech; meditate on 9/11 as seen from Bloomington, Indiana; and contemplate the relentless passage of time from the verge of a high-dive board. But, as with the writer’s own work, A…Supposedly Fun Thing’s form is as important as its content.
Fish artfully dramatizes Wallace’s famous literary self-consciousness. Here, footnotes, represented by actors, can have their own voices—literally entering into dialogue with other ensemble members relaying the main thread of his arguments. The incantatory mode performers frequently fall into as they unspool Wallace’s ornate sentences shows the author’s rhythms reaching for a kind of ecstasy. Speaking the prose aloud allows it to really sing, and speaking it in a version of Wallace’s own cadences gives us a hint of how it might have sounded to him. (If the outpouring of posthumous reverence turned you off from reading Wallace, this piece will bring you back). The theatrical situation emphasizes Wallace’s sense of himself as a literary performer, as he publicly exhorts, condemns, celebrates, pleads. We also begin to feel the isolation of this role—this achingly intelligent voice seeking forever for the right ear. And we know he never found that perfect auditor (or if he did, it wasn’t enough).
Like Wallace’s novels, Fish’s piece is long—at two and a half hours without intermission, you could, perhaps, as with the novels, accuse it of being too long. But duration is part of the meaning, and you end up being as glad you sat through the occasional longueurs as you are about the many instances of grace. When the ensemble transforms Wallace’s recorded voice into group chants, we get a sense, in the moments of dissonance, how terribly exhausting it must have been to be trapped in such a brilliantly babbling mind. But the passages of choral unity are like a benediction, transforming this solitary seeker’s lonely voice into a communal requiem.