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Review: La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘A Thousand Ways’ offers a welcome, albeit fleeting, unusual human connection

A promotional image for La Jolla Playhouse's "A Thousand Ways"
A promotional image for La Jolla Playhouse’s “A Thousand Ways,” an interactive theater experience whose first part, “A Phone Call,” runs through Feb. 28.
(Maria Baranova-Suzuki)

The piece, part of the theater’s all-digital Without Walls Festival, will have two more audience interactions over the next several months.

“Words are not enough, but they’re all that we have.”

Those are among the first words spoken by the robotic female voice that guides two audience members through Part 1 of “A Thousand Ways,” an unusual, serene and inspiring theatrical piece that is part of La Jolla Playhouse’s all-digital Without Walls Festival.

Created by 600 Highwaymen, a New York experimental theater company founded by Michael Silverstone and Abigail Browde, “A Thousand Ways” was devised as a way to re-create the live and visceral connection between audience and art that has been missing since theaters shut down in March.

The 9/11-themed musical will be the second Christopher Ashley-directed Broadway show filmed onstage since last fall, following in the footsteps of ‘Diana.’

“A Thousand Ways” is actually a three-part show that will be spread out in pieces over several months. Part 1, “A Phone Call,” is available for a $25 ticket through Feb. 28.

Still to come is “An Encounter,” the second piece of “A Thousand Ways,” in which two strangers will meet at a table separated by a pane of glass. Their conversation will be guided not by words but by a series of illustrated index cards.

The final piece, “An Assembly,” will bring together “A Thousand Ways” participants for a gathering unlikely to occur until theaters reopen.

In “A Phone Call,” there is no actor or prewritten script. Two ticketholders, who are anonymous to each other, take part in a scheduled 45-minute phone call moderated by an electronic voice assistant that asks the callers an alternating series of questions that allow them to get to know each other through bits and pieces of memories and observation.

Some people might feel squeamish about a call with a stranger. I found it comforting to make a connection with another theater lover, even if I never learned her name. It wasn’t awkward. It was enjoyable, often funny and very entertaining.

The disembodied voice asked questions about favorite childhood memories, emotional losses, major life moments and inconsequential facts. Through these questions, I learned that my phone mate was born in 1967; she has been to a flea market and a football game but not the Philippines, and she has no tattoos. She also is a wife and mom, she loves a person named Katelyn, and one of her saddest moments in childhood was when her parents gave away her pet dog.

Through the course of the call, I also discovered that we shared the same sense of humor when the digital voice got tripped up several times and we had to nudge it along before it reset. I also got a feel for her kindness, her keen listening skills and her respect for the process. For the first time since the pandemic began, I made a new friend. The friendship lasted for only 45 minutes, but it sure felt good.

‘A Thousand Ways’

When: 5:30, 7 and 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 3:30, 5, 7 and 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2, 3:30, 5:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28

Tickets: $25

Online: lajollaplayhouse.org/wow-goes-digital/a-thousand-ways