Shakespeare wrote Lear in a plague year, we’ve been reminded lately, and as quarantine measures take effect, the 24 Hour Plays has given us our first taste of theater inspired by our current pandemic. The organization has been staging “time-limited theater” since 1995, bringing actors and playwrights together to write and produce a work of drama in 24 hours or less. The novel coronavirus has put a stop to the whole “bringing actors and playwrights together” thing, at least in a literal sense, but you can do a lot on the internet these days: On Tuesday night, The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues debuted on Instagram, featuring 20 new dramatic monologues from 20 different playwrights, performed by 20 different actors, all written and produced since 6 p.m. on Monday. Artistic director Mark Armstrong explained the project in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter:
We’ve always made work about the most difficult moments in our lives, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to the 2016 election. After my friend Howard Sherman called me with the perfect idea, we figured out how to do just that without physically getting people together. It’s a privilege to work with these incredible talents to capture this moment and help give friends around the world something that only the arts can provide.
The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues debuted on Instagram on Tuesday evening, with one new monologue premiering every 15 minutes until midnight. None of them is King Lear, exactly—that took a little longer than a day to write, it turns out—but they are funny and heartbreaking and silly, and the best are transcendent. Here are a few of my favorites.
A Story of Survival by David Lindsay-Abaire, performed by Rachel Dratch
Like many of the playwrights who contributed monologues, David Lindsay-Abaire used the constraints of the assignment to inspire the form. In this case, that means a video from a hapless YouTube Z-lister played by Rachel Dratch, who has pivoted from makeup tutorials to do-it-yourself hand sanitizers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. We’re all going to have to get very good at recognizing brutality disguised as cheerfulness during this crisis; this monologue is a great place to start.
An Immodest Proposal by Jesse Eisenberg, performed by Richard Kind
It’s just a simple fact: There is no quarantine that cannot be improved by watching Richard Kind announce a new chapter in his career. He’s done his homework, he’s put in his time, and personally, I think big-time Hollywood producers should give him a chance. Maybe they could even throw a little work to the playwright, Jesse Eisenberg.
Simon: A Real Estate Guy by Monique Moses, performed by Patrick Wilson
A brilliant premise from playwright Monique Moses inspires a hysterical performance from Patrick Wilson, but the main point I’d like to make about “Simon: A Real Estate Guy” is this one: Milton Berle really was in the music video for Ratt’s “Round and Round”!
The Challenge by Rachel Axler, performed by David Cross
Full disclosure: Playwright Rachel Axler is a friend. Fuller disclosure: This monologue features David Cross sitting in a bathtub wearing a fucking sea captain’s hat, and there is no conceivable conflict of interest that would prevent me from bringing that information to the attention of Slate’s readers.
Cocktail Class by Hansol Jung, performed by Ashlie Atkinson
Any monologue lets you know what a character is thinking about; great ones let you know the subjects they avoid at all costs. Hansol Jung’s text uses negative space to trace the outline of a personal cataclysm, and BlacKkKlansman’s Ashlie Atkinson delivers it perfectly. The conceit, an Airbnb Experiences class in making cocktails, requires Atkinson to get through a lot of stage business while telling her story, but since the cocktails are themselves a distraction tactic employed by her character, it all hangs together.
the woods are a good place to pick me up by Lily Padilla, performed by Marin Ireland
An astonishing monologue from Lily Padilla, who has somehow managed to gather up all the anxiety and dread of the current moment and transform it into something beautiful. Marin Ireland’s performance is as flawless as the script—look how perfectly she lets us see her character’s train of thought switch rails during the pivot between “I’ve been to your land before” and “Tom is a prepper”—and the final image is gorgeous and haunting.
You can find all 20 Viral Monologues on the 24 Hour Plays’ Instagram page.