A slow waltz of a play, Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told in the Dark opens in figurative and literal light. To the tinkling of piano keys, we witness an Up-like montage of a couple’s honeymoon phase: they meet, first digitally (by swiping right) and then in person, pantomime their way through the usual new-couple activities, meet each other’s friends, and—as time slows to its normal pace—move in together. It’s a happy sequence, all smiles and cheery music, tinged by the grim knowledge that rarely in art does joy come without sorrow nipping at its heels. Then there’s the promise in that title—ghosts, darkness, and the unavoidable discord that comes of unzipping another human being and peering in. The rest of the play, written by Marina Tempelsman and Nicco Aeed as part of their 6-month residency at the People’s Improv Theater in New York, delivers all of these, though not quite as you’ve seen them before. In fact, in Unpacking, you may not see them at all.
Many comedians are satisfied simply to write and perform funny things, and we have them to thank for some of the genre’s greatest works. Fewer comedians show as much interest in the form their content takes, though I suspect this number is increasing with the influence of high-profile auteurs like Louis C.K. and Eugene Mirman. Count Tempelsman and Aeed, who make comedy under the moniker Marina and Nicco, among these ranks. They gave Unpacking a simple but crucial twist: on the couple’s first night in their new home, the lights go out. So do the lights in the PIT’s Striker Stage. In the absence of traditional illumination, it falls to the audience, armed with flashlights, to make visible the play’s seven characters—the central couple and the specters of their past. This is often a frustrating effect, as the democratization of formal decision-making equates to wrong-headed decisions (a well-lit character in what logically must be a shadowy corner) as often as it equates to no decision at all (a congregation of listless beams hovering on the back wall). But the overwhelming atmosphere is a poignant one, a sense of shattering uncertainty in spite and because of great agency: I have this flashlight, this newfound power, this nascent relationship, this new home—and not the damndest clue what to do with any of it.
“We didn’t want it to be a gimmick,” Tempelsman reflected, on a recent and unseasonably warm March afternoon. She and Aeed had just wrapped up Unpacking’s three-night run and were in rehearsals for the third play in their residency, Role Play, in which two actors will play a range of characters involved in a love affair. “It’s a play about intimacy and seeing things subjectively,” she said, “and I think it all came together really nicely.” The idea for the device was hers, though Aeed has long been interested in the artifice of light in theatre—he recalls a production of Hamlet in which the opening scene was lit only by a flashlight. But both writers (actors, directors) are deeply concerned with form, be it in the web sketches they’ve made for Funny or Die, their live sketch work, or the plays they’re writing for the PIT. “We generally like writing something for the medium it’s gonna be in,” Aeed said. “If you’re gonna see something live, it should be worth seeing live. I was surprised how well [Unpacking] worked—the way people’s flashlights bounced and moved felt a little bit underwater. It made the whole thing seem a little dreamlike, which helped you understand the ghost-iness of it.”
The “ghosts” in the play, by the by, aren’t quite traditional ghosts. Yes, there’s the leading male’s departed mother, but then there’s his ex-girlfriend—she’s not dead, she’s just in Portland—and his estranged father, as well as the leading lady’s ex-boyfriend, who’s alive and seems to be a bit of a drunk. It’s absurd, but dealt with casually enough that the joke never feels telegraphed. This is characteristic of Marina and Nicco’s work generally, in which normal enough people confront—or breeze right past—tiny absurdities in daily life. “I think someone said Marina is 99% good and 1% deranged,” Aeed said of their sensibilities. “There’s a sweetness to the sketches, but they’re also pretty messed up situations.” He was referring to a favorite of mine, “Family Portrait,”, in which a woman (Tempelsman) offers to take a picture of a family and inadvertently causes its collapse. Something similar happens in “Marina Calls Time Warner,” when her complaint about a cable repairman who didn’t show is taken, well, rather seriously. These sketches are interested in interrogating relationships that rarely merit interrogation, in the moments after the moments we turn our attention elsewhere. “I always think about how stories end,” said Aieed. “I don’t think they ever really do. The great thing about eavesdropping on a conversation is daydreaming about what else could happen after that little bit you heard.” Their work—particularly this willowy videothey made for the New Yorker—is often the enactment of these daydreams.
Aeed and Tempelsman, who are both talented, radiant actors, have been collaborating for just south of a decade. They met at Swarthmore College, where they wrote and performed with the campus sketch team, and continued working together over breaks and after graduating, when they both moved back to New York City. Their PIT residency is not their first venture into long form comedy—they’ve co-written pilots and a screenplay—but it is very much the natural product of years experimenting in shorter forms. “Sketch prepares you for this question in longer narratives—if just this page or just this scene is all you’re seeing, is it worth it?” said Aeed, though Tempelsman reflected that narrative work tends to be draped in layers of subjective experience absent in sketch, where every 3-minute video is a painstakingly-calibrated machine. “In sketch you talk about a reveal line, or a turn,” she said. “When something doesn’t get the reaction you anticipate, there’s some feeling of ‘Oh, I should’ve positioned it differently.’ But with narrative you’re asking people to apply their own perspectives to the thing you’re presenting. There’s a lot more room for subjectivity.”
Unpacking was the second of six plays Marina and Nicco will produce for the PIT. The third, Role Play, will explore the blurry lines between one’s true self and the characters one plays; it runs the 21st, the 24th, and the 25th of March. April’s installment will turn the PIT’s basement into a nightclub, where a group of comedians revolt against the mobsters who run the place. In May, a group of six black actors will face an existential crisis as they audition for the same token role again and again. June’s play, as well as what’s next for the duo, remains uncertain. As Aeed said, with a sly grin: “Stay tuned.”
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.