‘This Zoom Life’ could be the the best comedy web series since COVID

Its five hilarious episodes about socially distanced dilemmas had this reviewer wanting more.

These days, in lieu of live scripted comedy, I’ve learned to feel lucky whenever I find online theater that gets me LOLing all alone. To be honest, that happens rarely, and never all the way through. A lot of what’s funny on stage falls flat on screen anyway, but the absence of other audience members induces a quietude that can be fine for seriously thought-provoking fare yet fatal for, say, farce. If I want onscreen funny I look to TV sitcoms and movie comedies. But hilarity in solitary on Zoom? Not likely.

Or so I thought until I stumbled upon This Zoom Life.

Home haircut: James Jelin (Jamie). DC Metro Theater Arts screengrab.

Nothing else I’ve seen created with Zoom during COVID comes close to the comic achievement in this five-episode web series about millennials and their socially distanced dilemmas. Its wit and absurd verisimilitude are an utter delight.

This Zoom Life was created by Peruvian comedian Erick Acuña in a partnership with Washington Improv Theater (WIT), which is promoting it. (Acuña’s one-person comedy Acuña Acuna had a memorably sold-out run at the 2019 Capital Fringe, where it was awarded Best Solo Performance and Best of Fringe.)

The main character is Jamie, whom we first meet groggily trying to get out of bed as his friend Erick pops in on Zoom to talk up all the Type-A things he’s already got done. Jamie is silently chagrinned. He can muster no such vigor. With his asymmetric shock of unruly curly hair, James Jelin as Jamie portrays perfectly that relatable malaise when feeling overwhelmed and unproductive.

“It’s hard to have goals during a pandemic,” Jamie says at one point—a line that in context sounds both pitiful and hilarious in the manner of classic Chekhov.

Zoom date: James Jelin (Jamie) and Sophie de Bruijn (Marissa). DC Metro Theater Arts screengrab.

The Zoom screen in This Zoom Life is peopled episodically by an assortment of Jamie’s friends from college, his sister (who teaches back-to-back Zoom classes), his therapist, his boss, his fellow work-from-homers, and Marissa, whom he’d very much like to date. Jamie’s infatuation with Marissa (in a lovely performance by Sophie de Bruijn) and her interest in him provide the main plot line of the series, but along the way ridiculousness ensues—all true to life as it has to be lived now. Early on Jamie innocently shares the password to his work Zoom account with his sister and several friends, which sets in motion a hilarious sequence of Zoom-bomb drop-ins.

Most of the series plays out in Zoom verité, engagingly and disarmingly. There are a few cinematic cutaways that create scene changes or amplify the story, but the series has clearly been written and directed with a quickwitted command of the Zoom medium. Moreover, the cast—all adept improvisers affiliated with WIT—is excellent.

Much of the charm of This Zoom Life is in discovery of its jokey twists, so I won’t give too much away. Suffice it to say, some bits are so brilliantly meta I had to pause playback so I could laugh awhile.

The gag that slayed me most happened during Jamie’s work meeting with his boss and coworkers on Zoom. The meeting dialogue was funny enough in itself, but off in a box in a corner there was someone named Seth on his shaky smartphone trying futilely to call in, never connecting and so never seen by the others. If this were happening on stage, Seth would be stealing the scene. But in the context of this Zoom meeting, his anxious antics become a comically desperate modern metaphor for FOMO.

Zoom work meeting: Cara Popecki (Sophie), Béatrice Leydier (Béatrice), James Jelin (Jamie), Diego Hernandez (Diego), Keenan Gibson (Sam), Seth Payne (Seth). DC Metro Theater Arts screengrab.

There are also aspects of the writing that had me gasping with awe. At one point, for instance, Jamie has accidentally double-booked a Zoom session with his therapist Dr. Wall and a Zoom performance review with his boss Sam, so Jamie tries awkwardly to toggle between the two. Meanwhile Sam is distracted by an offscreen toddler taking a poop.

While Sam is thus diverted, Dr. Wall asks Jamie, “Are you struggling with planning uninterrupted unstructured time?” to which Jamie answers yes, meaning it. This is followed immediately when Sam returns and asks the same question reframed, “Do you excel at planning uninterrupted unstructured time?” to which Jamie again answers yes, obviously faking it.

When dramatic literature pulls off such artful juxtaposition of a character’s truth telling and lying, we say we are seeing timeless and all-too-human complexity. In This Zoom Life we also get a fresh look at the contemporary human comedy in closeup.

This Zoom Life zeroes in on the zeitgeist with so many zingers and such zest that when I came to the end I could not help but want more. Happily I can report that Erick Acuña and company are working on new episodes for release in the spring.

This Zoom Life is now playing on YouTube in five episodes, each about seven minutes long.

Credits
Creator/Producer: Erick Acuña
Writers: Erick Acuña, Stephanie Kozikowski, Martin Steger
Director: Martin Steger
Editor: David Mullins

Cast
James Jelin: Jamie
Sophie de Bruijn: Marissa
Erick Acuña: Erick
Annie Barry: Tina
Kalynn Chambers: Mary
Darnell Eaton: Keegan
Keenan Gibson: Sam
Rosie Grant: Rosie
Diego Hernandez: Diego
Tess Higgins: Tara
Richie Khanh: Richie
Stephanie Kozikowski: Kathryn
Elizabeth Leff: Elizabeth
Béatrice Leydier: Béatrice
Max Makovetsky: Dating guys 1, 2 and 3
Amanda Magnavita: Apple
Seth Payne: Seth
Kelsey Peters: Mackensey
Cara Popecki: Sophie
Krystal Ramseur: Dr. Wall
Morgan Smalley: Morgan
Kristen Timko: Liz
Karyn Wilson: Julie

RELATED: 2019 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Acuña Acuna’ by Ravelle Brickman

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John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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