I spend my days in the basement with my health, a computer, a phone, Stephen Sondheim and, when fortune smiles, a loyal dog.
From time to time, I either initiate, or respond to, invitations to meetings on Zoom, a flawed but deftly branded videoconferencing app that has thrived during this pandemic by following the lead of Hoover, Kleenex and Chapstick and achieving the rare feat of becoming both a generic verb (“I Zoom, she Zooms, we all Zoomed together”) and a noun (“We really should do a Zoom some time”).
The arrival of Zoom in our lives will be a significant part of the cultural history of this pandemic. It is at once a personal and professional lifeline and an awful substitute for actual human contact.
Among the many changes Zoom has wrought is the widespread pervasiveness of the experience of watching yourself while talking to someone else. In the old days, we simply chatted without seeing our lips moving or marveling at the size of our nose. Now, as we talk, we see our own face, writ large. It’s horrific.
We’ve all learned how to move backwards and forwards in the frame for emphasis — an experience that weirdly recalls the early days of the David Letterman show on NBC wherein Dave’s gap-toothed mug would suddenly fill the camera, even as its operator frantically tried to zoom out to keep things under standard late-night control.
This was radical TV at the time: Letterman was mocking the faux-realism of the medium by poking fun at its conceits. Now we all lean in and out every day of our lives, perched in front of our own little fake talk-show setting: the bookcase, the shaft of elusive sun, the curated volumes designed to virtue-signal, the judiciously placed lamps, the works of art designed to convey whatever it is we want to convey about ourselves.
Most of us are conflicted as to how much effort to put into all of this, but we also know about Zoom’s “pin-video” feature, a mostly unremarked-upon pandemic gift to anonymous voyeurs who can blow you up and stare at everything in your frame and conduct their own private semiotic analysis when meetings get too boring, possibly storing it up for future Facebook takedowns. Since we all do it, albeit while worrying there may be an alarming alert of which we are unaware, we are acutely aware of its dangers.
But if we truly love the people on the Zoom, then its inadequacy feels more painful.
This is one of the main points made by Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family: What Do We Need to Talk About?,” the one-hour Zoom play released by the New York Public Theater and now streaming, for free, through June 28.
Streamed things are ubiquitous now, of course, but this masterful affair is actually about Zoom-style communication: it is America’s first worthy Zoom play and a kind of saddened pandemic version of Letterman’s playfulness. (For an example of an unexamined Zoom-type show, watch the sadly disappointing and woefully unaware reunion of “Parks and Recreation.”)
The Apple family of New York adults has appeared before in Nelson’s plays, but their particular set of relationships or circumstances doesn’t matter all that much. What is most interesting here is how the piece dissects the act of loving people on Zoom: the way the cruel frames re-order pre-pandemic geography and emphasize isolation. At one point, you see the character played by the Steppenwolf Theatre actress Sally Murphy actually try and touch the screen, as if someone were there or that the forward motion was not a random direction but would allow her to move closer to the sibling she misses. It reminds me of how my dog sometimes awakes suddenly from deep sleeps, only to find herself disappointedly barking at the canned canines in a TV show. Since we’re watching more Netflix these days, this is becoming a nightly occurrence; dogs are disordered, too.
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People leave meetings on Zoom, of course. And the entrance and exit protocols we’re all creating and observing could fill another column: We have our video avatars (or not); we rush to disconnect (or we do not); we reveal or conceal our moving body. The app has a disconcerting way of suddenly enlarging the boxes as participants depart, often suddenly shifting focus to someone demonstrably unprepared for so much visual attention. And if everyone leaves the meeting, we are left only with our own reflection. Which is usually depressing.
There’s another issue, though. What do we even have to say on Zoom when we’re there?
Most of us find ourselves stuck in a hybrid of normal conversation and a “Groundhog Day” experience. We talk our talk and then the conversation drifts to the pandemic and its stultifying difficulties and choices and losses. When it goes there, and it always does, we become irritated by its intrusions and our own inability to transcend them, yet what else should we be talking about? This is the paralyzed rabbit-in-the-headlights aspect of COVID-19.
You’ll see it in Nelson’s play. And Richard Adams invented a name for it in “Watership Down," his 1972 novel: “Tharn,” meaning compelled and riveted but also unable to move away for our own well-being.
Maybe that’s why Zoom freezes up so much.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.