Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville penned Democracy in America, we’ve been obsessed about learning what foreigners think of us. Published in 1835 when his contemporaries continued to be skeptical about the American experiment, Tocqueville’s deliciously idiosyncratic commentary touched on American manners (and lack thereof), the effect of democracy on language, dress, money, relationships between the sexes and more. Fast forward roughly 140 years, swap the French writer for an Indian playwright and you have Disconnect, a play set in an Indian call center, which covers some of the same territory as it mirrors us back to ourselves.
If you’re not gritting your teeth while listening to a call center employee drone on through an entirely irrelevant script, you might find an admirable audacity to the whole enterprise. Staff a cramped center with 20-somethings who have undergone some kind of accent training and cultural familiarization to provide collections or customer support. Call it business process outsourcing, or BPO. The genius is in “capitalizing on a culture consumed by consumerism.”
If you’re the playwright, give the staff new western monikers: Ross, Vickie, and Gary (formerly, Rohan, Vidya, and Giri). Fill them with facts about Chicago. Name the call center “Team Illinois.” Intersperse the tedious call center scripts with the emotionally fraught relationships with marks. Fill the back talk with pointed commentary about those who let themselves get so in debt in the first place. Modulate the American experience with a little culture bending. “American Idiot” takes on a whole new meaning through the call center lens. The cultural layering in this particular production was particularly cheeky, as the cast required accent coaching to hone their Indian accents.
However, the catch to all this is that you’re listening to a call center. Remember all the voices you heard in the background last time you dealt with one of these places? Remember how your frustration level rose? The feeling doesn’t get any easier in a 90-minute play. The high-speed dialogue, witty though it is at times, has a numbing effect. Lacking any sort of modulation, it fails the audience and becomes incredibly boring. Even worse, you’re stuck in a largely unchanging set. Just as the only respite for the workers is a momentary trip to the hallway window overlooking a dump – and unfortunately, this all-too-brief respite is all the audience gets as well.
None of this tedium can be attributed to the cast, which was uniformly spectacular. They play likable people, in a curiously unlikable job, with a touching sensitivity.
Tocqueville’s observations include a curious note that reminds us how the mighty have fallen. He writes, “as men are intermingled and conditions become more equal, the poor have more resources, more education, and more desires; they conceive the notion of bettering their condition, and this teaches them to save.” Such notions never made it to the marks serviced by Team Illinois.