Everyday Chatter Unveils a Mystery in ‘Say Something Bunny!’

Posted January 2, 2018 6:58 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — A suburban family invites the neighbors to dinner. There are jokes and slights and a brief mention of the football game. Someone asks for a cake recipe. Someone else sings a song. It sounds punishingly ordinary. It is.

It is also an out-and-out thrill.

That long-ago dinner party fills out the first act of “Say Something Bunny!,” a play by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and Christopher Allen that is part documentary, part puzzle and part time-traveling immersion, with a passing foray into adult entertainment.

A few years ago, Kobayashi found herself in possession of a wire recorder, an obsolete magnetic device that enjoyed a quick midcentury vogue, and two reels. She played those reels and through the hissing and the overtalk, she could just make out a conversation.

Using a couple of contextual clues — a tune here, a box score there — she was able to date the first recording to the early 1950s and to then identify the voices it captured.

So go ahead and think of “Say Something Bunny!” as a detective story, but know that its mysteries are mellower and stranger than what a census search can solve. And by the way, you are part of the solution.

Kobayashi and Allen, her co-writer, co-producer, dramaturge and husband, stage “Say Something Bunny!” in a small space in Chelsea up a small flight of stairs. The room only holds 24 people and as your name is called, you can choose a seat at a circular table — painted black and white to resemble a wire reel — or behind the music stands arrayed in the back.

Kobayashi, dressed simply in a white T-shirt and white jeans will play the reels for you, inviting you to read along in the script and occasionally pausing to explain her research or to show a photo, a video, a few frames of sprightly animation.

Though audience members are made to stand in for each of the characters, the participation-phobic should know that only Kobayashi moves and speaks. For the rest of us, presence is enough. (Me? I was cast as a dog. I liked it.)

I want to tell you so much more about “Say Something Bunny!” but for those of you who will be lucky enough to see it (it’s been playing since the summer, closes in April, tickets are only $40, hurry hurry hurry) ruining its surprises would be like stamping on a soufflé. I’m not that kind of monster.

I will tell you that Kobayashi’s tender obsession with this material is as catching as the chickenpox, and if the piece is forthrightly funny and briefly pornographic, it is also sneakily moving. Toward the end I found myself fighting back tears.

I hadn’t really met any of these characters; most of them have been dead for decades. I’d only heard them and seen Kobayashi’s exaggerated re-enactments. (She is an expert guide and maybe a less than expert actress.)

It still felt like a loss to leave them behind and as soon as I was home I Googled one. Because my sleuthing can’t rival Kobayashi’s I’ll never know if he fulfilled his boyhood dream and became a radio announcer. I hope he did.

If “Say Something Bunny!” feels sui generis, there are a few theater pieces, like Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” or the work of W. David Hancock, that have previously meshed drama, documentary and off-kilter investigation. (Some movies and podcasts have done it, too. I was often reminded of the classic “This American Life” episode, “House on Loon Lake.”)

Like these works, “Say Something Bunny!” is about more than the particulars. It’s a low-key ontological thriller about how we live and what we leave and how we account for ourselves when some kid comes at us with a microphone.

“What do you want me to say?” Bunny, the neighbor’s girl, asks at the end of that first dinner.

More than 60 years later here we are, in a second-floor room on the West Side of Manhattan, breathless to know what she comes up with.

Production Notes:

‘Say Something Bunny’

Through April 22 at UNDO Project Space, Manhattan; saysomethingbunny.com.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.