Our species cannot make sense of warnings. In January, when reports of the coronavirus in Wuhan began to appear on the front page of the Times, we in New York grimaced and flipped past. Even as northern Italy succumbed, Milan’s Fashion Week rattled along. Something was happening to someone else, again. In retrospect, the confused feeling of early March in New York was like the sickening pause that heralds the arrival of a tsunami, the water receding before the wave crashes down. Now that we have been spat out onto drier land, we try to persuade the rest of the country to look at us, to listen, to learn from our mistakes, and we get silence, or worse, in return.
If the progression of the unchecked virus doesn’t scare the anti-maskers and the politicians who cynically enable them, it’s unlikely that watching “The Line,” a new play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about New York City health-care workers battling COVID-19, will do much to advance the cause. Still, it makes for an urgent, heartrending hour; maybe dramatized truth can slip through a window when the doors of reason have been slammed. Directed by Blank, and produced and presented by the Public, “The Line” is streaming on YouTube through September 1st, and, in a welcome effort at accessibility, is also available with Spanish subtitles, in closed captioning and sign language, and with audio description for the visually impaired. So far, more than twenty-eight thousand people have watched the play, likely a far larger audience than the physical theatre could have accommodated over the course of a run. If there is an understandable appetite for escapism these days, there is clearly also a hunger for works that try to parse our baffling shared reality.
Blank and Jensen practice a documentary style of play-making, which involves interviewing the real people they depict, who are generally caught in the teeth of tragedy. Their previous work includes “The Exonerated,” about inmates freed from death row, and “Coal Country,” which opened at the Public in early March and focusses on members of a West Virginia mining community that’s reeling from a deadly explosion. The characters in “The Line” include Oscar (John Ortiz), a gregarious E.M.T. from Queens; Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a gruff, streetwise paramedic; and Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), a nurse who is fiercely protective of the geriatric patients she cares for. David (Santino Fontana), a Long Islander, became a nurse after training as an actor; Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), an immigrant from Trinidad, came to the profession after finding that he had no head for business. Vikram (Arjun Gupta), an emergency-room doctor who treats some of the city’s poorest patients, is coolly analytical—he catches the virus early and reports to work the moment he has recovered—while Jennifer (Alison Pill), an outspoken first-year intern in Brooklyn, seethes with fury at her hospital’s failure to adequately prepare for COVID, and its attempts to cover up its negligence.
Each actor narrates his or her character’s story, looking into the camera of a computer or a phone, as if chatting from home with an interviewer; the clips are intercut so that a collective narrative arc traces the arrival and the spread of the virus. What emerges is a communal experience of horror, told with stark specificity: the non-stop emergency calls, the intubations, the lack of P.P.E., the stunned families, and, everywhere, the fear, the death, the grief. Sharon, who nearly died from the virus herself, says, “Then I come back to work and find out that half my population is gone.” The performers are, to a person, subtle, vivid, and direct; their voices amplify one another, and, as they do, a bigger picture of the city clicks into focus. These people know their town better than anyone; they have seen that who you are, and where and how you live, can make all the difference when it comes to survival. “We caught one aspect of it on a video,” Vikram says, referring to America’s lethal racism and the killing of George Floyd. “But with medicine there is no video.”
Early in the crisis, workers like these were branded, by the Mayor, and in the popular imagination, as health-care “heroes.” One of the messages to be taken from these testimonials is the obfuscating inadequacy of such titles. “Now we’re heroes? What the fuck do you think we were doing before all of this?” David says—and he’s the sweet one of the bunch. “ ‘Hero’ is a word we use in the face of fear, and it separates us from each other,” Ed says. “Same thing after 9/11.” Ed’s preferred term is a “chain” or a “line,” which includes the postal workers and the grocery clerks, the cleaners, the security guards, the food deliverers, and everyone else who, at great personal risk, has kept the city afloat. We lucky ones owe them our health. Guaranteeing theirs is the only way to repay the debt.
Catching stuff on video is at the heart of the comedian Hannibal Buress’s terrific new special, “Miami Nights.” Buress recorded the show in front of a live audience last summer, and released it for free on YouTube in early July. Buress, who may still be best known as the guy whose joke about the rape accusations against Bill Cosby turned the popular tide, is “medium famous,” a status that he discusses without rancor. Comedy nerds know him from “The Eric Andre Show,” on Adult Swim; millennials know him as Ilana Glazer’s boyfriend on “Broad City.” Twice a year, he says, he’s asked to host a game show. (“THE PROPHECY WILL BE FULFILLED, BUT THE TIME IS NOT NOW,” he booms in a mike-enhanced God voice, as cheesy apocalyptic flames engulf the screen that forms the back wall of the stage. “I WILL CONTINUE ON MY PATH TOWARD THE COUNTRY PLAYING MID- TO LARGE-SIZE VENUES AND OCCASIONALLY POPPING UP IN BIG-BUDGET WHITE COMEDY.”) He looks great, with a charming bit of belly, in a snug gray T-shirt that makes him seem younger, at thirty-seven, than he used to when he wore button-downs and blazers onstage.
A lot of comedy specials sag onscreen without the energy from an audience to boost the room, but Buress’s is perfect for home viewing. Tightly directed by Kristian Mercado, the show is highly visual, with the vast screen providing effects and illustration for Buress’s bits. It’s one of the better onstage representations I’ve seen of Internet brain, the way we think in links and GIFs and memes. “I hate the fact that you can just Google how much somebody’s house costs,” he says. “And I hate the fact that I don’t have the self-control to not do that while I’m in somebody’s house.” Buress has always had a goofy streak, and some of his silliest riffs are pure candy. There’s a bit on the rapper 2 Chainz begging God for various custom automobiles, and Buress has fun messing around with the mike, spinning out a scenario in which a throat-cancer survivor with an Auto-Tuned voice box delivers a hauntingly mellifluous anti-smoking P.S.A. to schoolkids.
But mortality is also on his mind. He talks about quitting drinking, about his asthma, and about death. “I want my own way of dying,” he says. It’s a joke about ego, but the unspoken subtext—about the precise way in which a Black man in America does not want to die—hangs in the air, to be picked up in the story that the act has been building toward, which takes up the last twenty minutes of the hour-long show. In 2018, Buress made the news after he was arrested for disorderly conduct during a boozy night in Miami. What distinguished the episode was his ingenious decision (if, given his state of mind, it can be called that) to speak directly into the cop’s body camera. He plays us the footage. There he is, as amiable as ever, stooping to get his angle: “Hey, what’s up, it’s me, Hannibal Buress. This cop’s stupid as fuck.” Without hitting the notes too hard, Buress takes us through the rest of his Miami night, ending with a twist that lands, especially now, as sublime catharsis. The encounter could have ended tragically. Instead, Buress turned it into comedy. A knife’s edge separates one from the other, and it’s getting thinner all the time. ♦