If there’s anything positive to say about COVID-19, it has certainly inspired artists to get creative with their delivery. Amid devastating postponements and cancellations, the industry has been feeding off viral monologues, socially-distanced shoots, rehearsals in masks and of course, the global phenomenon that is “Hamilton”. But so far, my favorite home-entertainment technique has been audio dramas…and while I can’t say this obsession was brought on by the pandemic, the timing couldn’t be better for a surge in podcasting.
Media companies such as QCode, Wondery and Stitcher produce rich, intriguing stories that quite literally feel like cinema fueled by sound and your own imagination. And thankfully, health restrictions have not affected quality in the slightest; one project from Wondery, “Blood Ties”, had the cast record in their bedroom closets in order to complete the sophomore season and believe me, you cannot tell the difference. Audible has also been pulling its weight with recordings of “Angels In America” and “Sea Wall/A Life” performed by their respective Broadway casts, and the release of “When You Finish Saving The World”, an original play/audiobook created by Jesse Eisenberg. And since I’ve been slowly absorbing it every night for the past three weeks, it’s the piece I’m going to discuss in detail.
“When You Finish Saving The World” features Eisenberg, Kaitlyn Dever and Finn Wolfhard as the Katz family; split across fifteen-year time jumps, each character presents a monologue regarding their personal hardships. In 2017, Nathan (played by Eisenberg) records himself on his therapist’s advice to better understand his lack of feelings towards newborn son, Ziggy. We then meet the boy as a teenager (played by Wolfhard) in 2032, who is sentenced to “bot-counselling” after lashing out at school. And finally we rewind back to 2002, where college student Rachel (played by Dever) sends cassette tapes to her soldier boyfriend deployed in Uzbekistan, years before starting a family.
Now before I sing it’s praises, I must admit I wasn’t immediately captured by this audio-drama. The script at times is over-explanatory and I initially struggled to get into the father and son’s headspace…which was difficult because their monologues are told first. Kicking off with Nathan was a brave choice in itself, as a parent unable to emotionally connect to their infant child is quite an alienating perspective. Eisenberg wrote and performed the role to suit his familiar quirks; a blunt and neurotic introvert speaking a million miles a minute. But as the story progressed, I found myself becoming more invested in Nathan’s growth as a paternal figure. With each new recording, I was rooting for the guy: “Bond with your kid, man! You’re doing great!” And I realised that’s where Eisenberg’s strengths lie as a playwright—the audience’s initial impression is superfluous once he gets to the raw heart of a character.
Despite a solid and snarky performance by rising talent, Finn Wolfhard, I found Ziggy’s monologue less effective in storytelling and character than the others. The teenager’s points of interest, including an awkward first love and gaining credits on a music-sharing platform, lacked the emotional depth I was hoping for. And what’s more disappointing is that Ziggy’s chapter practically concludes before he can realise and explore the core issue; the dysfunctional relationships built into the Katz family. Eisenberg’s vision of 2032 (and it’s choice of futuristic slang) is fun yet a little unconvincing…though in his defence, who knows what the next fifteen years will bring? Nobody expected the horrors of 2020, that’s for sure.
Last but definitely not least is Rachel, a girl torn between her microcosmic college life and her long-distance boyfriend, a soldier fighting in the War on Terror. It is here we find a satisfying balance of script and performance; Kaitlyn Dever nails her character’s emotional instability and Eisenberg’s dialogue is painfully realistic. The plot’s pacing is much steadier than the previous chapters, shifting through optimistic highs and inconsiderate betrayals from the people closest to Rachel. Also, Eisenberg’s decision to end the play in the past neatly sets the audience up for a revisit—on a second listen, you’d technically hear the story in chronological order.
“When You Finish Saving The World” is an imperfect yet engaging drama, and the closest experience I’ve had to theatre in many months (besides Hamilton, of course). Fortunately, for all those who prefer visual entertainment, a film adaptation is in the works under acclaimed distribution company, A24’s banner. The feature is said to involve the three main stars and in addition, Julianne Moore. But when will it be released? Well…I guess we’ll have to wait and see.