Like a dog nosing around in the background, a robot vacuum cleaner is a guaranteed scene stealer. Late in the new play “Work Hard Have Fun Make History,” the unfailingly compelling actor Susannah Perkins shares the stage with one: a whirring black disk busily roaming the industrial carpet, bumbling into walls yet never toppling over edges, at least not the night I saw the show.
Perkins plays a phone service representative named Annie, on a call with a frantic customer whose new android assistant, an iWhip 2.0, has turned menacing.
“What’s the command to make it go away?” the caller pleads.
“‘Blades down, iWhip,’” Annie instructs.
Perkins gives the line a perfect comic spin, but our eyes are on Annie’s own insensate labor saver. Unleash a robot and havoc may follow. Wouldn’t that be entertaining?
“Work Hard Have Fun Make History,” whose title echoes an Amazon motto, is not at all on the side of the machines, but it is acutely unsettled by their rampancy in our increasingly fractionalized, disembodied culture. Written by ruth tang (who lowercases their name) and directed by Caitlin Sullivan, this is the first production in Clubbed Thumb’s 2023 Summerworks festival, an annual showcase for off-kilter experimentation at the Wild Project in the East Village.
There is, unfortunately, a nagging sense that a tumult of tenuously related ideas and a diffuse crowd of characters have overwhelmed this thought-provoking, plot-free comedy, which above all is about human alienation: from the body, from physical presence, from other people.
It is about labor, both the kind that brings home paychecks and the kind that brings babies into the world, and about out-of-control greed disguised as genius; thus a couple of amusingly dim tech-bro characters called Jeff (Sagan Chen) and Elon (the performer who goes by b). It is about gender identity, and sex, and coupledom, and the pain of parental rejection. It is about climate change, and artificial intelligence that gets ever smarter while remaining, in elemental ways, extremely dumb. It is about containers — shipping boxes figure heavily — and the spilling over of that which cannot be contained.
Which is a lot to fit into a 75-minute show. On a utilitarian set by the design collective dots, under warehouse-stark lighting by Isabella Byrd, “Work Hard” is told in a series of fragmentary scenes that aren’t always as taut as they might have been. Elon and Jeff, for example, ramble.
With much doubling by the cast of three, and some dialogue in voice-over (sound design is by Lee Kinney), the show has a progression that can be cumulative, as with a grumpily funny baby (Chen) whom we first meet in utero and follow into life. But this sharply observant, sometimes poignant, grimly comic play is too scattershot to gather force as it goes on.
Work Hard Have Fun Make History
Through May 30 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; clubbedthumb.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.