Seeking pandemic theater? Your call will be answered shortly

By Alexis Soloski

A few years ago, I clicked on an article claiming that the average human spends 20 minutes on hold per week, or approximately 13 hours per year. Consider me above average. Because last weekend I spent an hour and a half clambering through nearly every branch of an existential phone tree. Is it weird to say I enjoyed it?

“Human Resources,” an aural experiment created by the Telephonic Literary Union and produced by the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, uses the form of an automated phone system to speak to themes of aloneness and disorientation many of us feel. So in its way does “KlaxAlterian Sequester,” an immersive audio work that tries to make you feel better about pandemic life by positing an even grimmer alternate reality. These are pieces about trying and likely failing — no matter how many signal bars your phone shows — to connect.

While quarantine has given a boost to audio drama generally, these are among the few pieces that speak directly to us listeners and allow for our responses. Both experiences have thought about what motivates us (lonesomeness, boredom) to put on our headphones and hit play. Or, in the case of “Human Resources” and the 14 calls I ultimately made, redial. That phone tree kept kicking me off. I’m trying not to take it personally.

Written by Brittany K. Allen, Christopher Chen, Hansol Jung and Zeniba Now, “Human Resources” just wants to make you happy. Or at least direct you to an appropriate customer service representative. It begins with an automated greeting, a robotic voice commanding you to listen carefully as the menu options have recently changed. Here’s the menu: Press “1” to file a claim for unhappiness. “2” gives you the Department of Conscious Rearrangement. “3” directs your call to technical support. “4” routes you to an actual human. (Allegedly.) “5” is a company directory that leads to outgoing voicemail messages for the creators and cast. Because I have a stubborn completist streak, I listened to them all.

Most options lead to other options, a mobile maze of forking paths — some infuriating, some surreal, some poignant, several merely dull. Listen long enough and you can find aural gems nestled amid the thank-you-for-your-patience recordings. If you are an off-Broadway superfan, there’s also the fun of recognizing many of the voices. Is that Mia Katigbak? It is!

Still, it takes discipline to listen to “Human Resources.” Those 13 hours a year have trained most of us to tune out hold music and automated assurances as we wait for a sentient operator to come on the line.

I never could reach another human, despite the main menu’s promise, which gave “Human Resources” a melancholy and sometimes fractious feel, a buildup to a payoff that RSVPs and doesn’t show. (Think “Waiting for Godot,” with Muzak.) But there are compensations, like the actor Jin Ha reading Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.” Even the robot voice offers comfort. As I waited to file my unhappiness claim (subcategory: loneliness), the robot sympathized. “We are sorry to hear you are unhappy,” it said. And then, “This can’t be helping.”

Or maybe it can? Almost all of us are on hold right now, in one way or another. And the thought of so many people, all navigating an unnavigable moment, pressing buttons and entering codes in hopes of support is a funny kind of consolation.

There’s also the chilly reassurance of knowing that as bad as things are, they could be much, much worse. “KlaxAlterian Sequester,” a play for your smartphone, imagines a future in which alien life-forms arrive on Earth sometime later this year and promptly enslave humanity. For reasons the extremely fuzzy premise can’t explain, you, a human, have been sent back from 2083 to 2020, when the KlaxAlterians made first contact, to listen in on their early communications.

“We can only break their hold on us if they understand who they think we are,” your bearded liaison (Ben Beckley) will tell you in a prerecorded video sequence.

The hourlong piece, which you are asked to perform alone in your home, has you look through alien eyes (assuming aliens have eyes) at what it is to be human. After the video, an audio sequence asks you to take an inventory of the human body. The inventory sounds a lot like a thesaurus run wild. “Rostral orifices at the anterior center of its neck orb”? Those would be your ears. “Gelatinous spheroids enveloped in folds of skin”? Your windows to the soul. Subsequent audio files then move you from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen and back, exploring alimentation, purgation and other mundane aspects of the day-to-day.

The piece ends in an irritating indeterminacy, and it’s doubtful that these audio tracks would help aliens understand humanity, or the inverse. Will the six minutes I spent considering the mechanics of my bathroom free us from our alien shackles? Unlikely. As in “Human Resources,” connection falters.

“KlaxAlterian Sequester” stands on firmer and more humane ground when it makes the familiar strange, asking us to think deeply about what we often take for granted — the facts of the human body and its lived environment. I didn’t think that after this many months indoors my tiny apartment could ever seem foreign. But for that hour it did. Even the simple act of sipping a glass of water felt weird and charged.

There’s a bit more to “KlaxAlterian Sequester” — interstitial sound files to listen to as you move from room to room. Those sequences suggest something awfully bleak. In this dark future world, humanity barely survives. But hold music is still going strong.