You’ve Got Hate Mail
The Triad – Fridays at 7 pm
You couldn’t ask for much simpler, more economic staging than what director Gary Shaffer has provided for Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore’s cybersex comedy, You’ve Got Hate Mail. Five actors are lined up downstage on the small proscenium platform of the Triad, seated behind laptop computers. When a character speaks—i.e., prepares an e‑mail—his or her hands move to the keyboard. Once the message is sent, hands leave the keys, heads nod down, and eyes drop or close. Only when they switch from computer to cell phone do the performers move away from their desks—standing, or perching on the back of a chair. Since characters never appear together in the same location, all the big in-person confrontations take place offstage. When characters berate or placate or get sexy with one another, they are not quite in “real time”—they can’t get a response from one another until after they’ve hit the send key.
It’s a big oops involving a send key, in fact, that triggers the conflict in the play. Richard (Van Zandt), an attorney in a large urban firm, thinks he’s sending a sexually explicit message to Wanda (Fran Solgan), the ultra-horny receptionist with whom he’s been having passionate in-office trysts. The message is directed, instead, to his wife, Stephanie (Milmore), a newcomer to the whole idea of e‑mail. Richard tries to use his lawyer’s skill at prevarication to invent elaborate explanations for the mix-up. But, in short order, marital war erupts, with Stephanie’s friend Peg (Barbara Bonilla) and Richard’s bud George (Glenn Jones) quickly drawn into the fray.
The performers in Hate Mail (some of whom are replacements for original cast members) give mostly strong turns, which is, I believe, the primary reason the play gets as many laughs as it does—and the night I saw it, the audience fairly roared throughout. Van Zandt is simply a funny guy, with an expressive face and voice straight out of an animated cartoon. Bonilla utilizes a blunt, harrumphing outspokenness that calls to mind Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious turn in the recent film Bridesmaids. Jones shines as a pompous boob in the tradition of Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And Milmore, as the Internet beginner and wronged woman, centers the whole thing with a slightly more subdued characterization than the others. Only Solgan is a bit out of key: She hasn’t quite found the right shadings for the nymphomaniacal persistence of the Flesh Called Wanda.
As for the script, you shouldn’t show up expecting Wildean or Shavian wit, or even the refinement of a lesser episode of Frasier. The humor is angry, coarse, and more than a little cynical about the human condition—especially about the condition of the male of the species. Insult humor flies in all directions (typical sentiment: “you’re about as helpful as the pimples on your ex-wife’s ass”), but the writers studiously avoid F‑bombs throughout. To the playwrights’ credit, the harsh tone remains consistent. There are no sudden sentimental turns toward (you should pardon the expression) a happy ending.
My only dramaturgical note, really, is that the web of deception and misunderstanding gets woven a bit too quickly. Twenty minutes into the action, so much has transpired that Richard has already gone the usual confessional route and declared himself fit for sex-addiction rehab. After about an hour, the whole farcical enterprise has gone about as fer as it can go. We’re left with a plotline that’s meandered well out of the range of plausibility, along with a stage full of PEOPLE HARRANGUING ONE ANOTHER IN CAPITAL LETTERS!! Better, I think, to have allowed the audience to get to know the characters a bit more, before the errant push of that infernal send key.
You’ve Got Hate Mail may not be subtle but, in light of the Anthony Weiner scandal, it’s certainly timely. Then again, aren’t philanderers men for all seasons? It’s just that, these days, they stray both actually and digitally.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.