In the darkest moments of a family tragedy, when playwright Mona Pirnot couldn’t find the strength to express her feelings to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried something a little unorthodox: she typed her thoughts into her laptop and asked for a message. -program to speech to shout them out loud.
It was a coping mechanism that also sparked a creative axis: Pirnot’s then-boyfriend, now husband, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a long-standing interest in sound and a more recent history of creating performances around disembodied voices. His latest work, “A Simulacrum”, featured a magician recreating his side of the conversation with Hnath, whose voice was heard through a recording. and his work before that, “Dana H.”, featured interviews with a lip-syncing actress in which the playwright’s mother recounted the trauma of the abduction.
Now Hnath directs Pirnot, who wrote and is the lone star in I Love You So Much I Could Die, a pagan exploration of how she was affected by a life-changing incident that incapacitated her sister at the start of the pandemic . In the 65-minute show, in Off Broadway previews at the New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits in a chair with a back facing the audience while a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her lines. Between chapters of the narrative, Pirnot plays guitar and sings songs she wrote.
The computer voice is male, robotic and, of course, emotionless. its rhythm and the length of the pauses vary according to how Pirnot and Hnath notated the text. The program makes occasional mistakes — one running joke involves Shia LaBeouf’s accent — that artists love. Hearing a machine tell stories of very human pain can be awkwardly funny, and the audience laughs, particularly early in the show, as they adjust to the disorienting experience.
“I like the relentless attitude I can deal with [the computer’s] voice that is kind of shocking and surprising, and I find it sometimes very moving, but sometimes extremely disturbing,” Pirnot said. “This really feels like recording and sharing a bit of what I’ve been feeling.”
The production features some of Hnath’s signature fingerprints. Like “The Christians,” his 2015 play set in an evangelical church, “I Love You So Much I Could Die” features cords and cables carrying snakes, reflecting his preference for transparent backdrops. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is extremely spare—a folding table, a lamp from the couple’s bedroom, a couple of speakers and, in the corner, a purple canister for the show’s one, almost imperceptible, fog effect.
“It’s not that slick,” Hnath said. “It’s basically announcing, ‘We’re not pretending. We’re just getting to work.” I was worried about it turning into a pristine art installation. Every time something goes smooth, I stop trusting it or wonder, “What are they hiding?”
Hnath has been experimenting with disturbing uses of sound for some time now. “The Thin Place,” his 2019 play about a psychic, and “Dana H. contain moments of deeply unsettling sound. And in “Dana H.”, “A Simulacrum” and now “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” each with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, there is the separation of speech from the speaker, in different ways.
“I think there’s a part of me that, deep down, is a frustrated composer. My first love was music, and I always wanted to compose music, so a lot of the way I approach playwriting is very compositional,” Hnath said. He enjoys “the level of control I could have over the sonic properties and the tempo,” he added. “I can fix it so it won’t change and that’s exactly what I mean.”
Hnath’s plays often involved what he unapologetically calls “a gimmick”—a play for a performer that leaves little room for error, like an actress perfectly imitating another woman’s words, breaths, and rhythm. His next play is about memorizing lines and dramatizes an older performer running lines with a younger performer. Hnath describes it as “a nightmare to learn — someone does the wrong line five different ways — I don’t know how you learn that.”
For “I Love You So Much I Could Die”, Pirnot and Hnath gradually began to solve the text-to-speech. At first, in 2020 and 2021, Pirnot wrote about her grief as a way of processing her emotions. Some of them looked like journal entries. some were almost a transcript of conversations with family members. At some point, Hnath felt that Pirnot should turn the material into a memoir.
When they started talking about directing the play, it was still the height of the pandemic, when in-person gatherings were complicated. So they did an early reading, with actors, via video conference. Pirnot and Hnath briefly discussed that her script is performed each time by a different actor who reads the words coldly.
Pirnot tested the text-to-speech idea with a short podcast monologue. And at home, she worked at a desk next to their bed, meaning that sometimes when she was sitting on the bed, she would play the material with her back to him, and this setup informed the work as it went into their living room, the Ensemble Studio Theater, Dartmouth (for residency) and now New York Theater Workshop, where it opens Wednesday.
Over time, the story became more about Pirnot’s feelings and less about her sister’s medical condition, which she does not detail in the play.
“Everything in the show is very intentional about the experience of life breaking open and completely falling apart, and what you do with all those pieces and how it makes you feel and how you keep moving forward,” he said. . “I felt like I could offer that experience without saying, ‘And by the way, here’s the exact sequence of the extremely torturous, unrelenting series of events that contributed to my new understanding.’
Why write about something so painful if you don’t want to share the details?
“After fighting so hard to keep a loved one alive, the question is why and why?” he said. “This is what I have to share. This is what I really want to express. Even though I ask myself every night, “How could I do this?” How could I share so much?’ is less sad for me than doing something I’ve only put half of myself into.”
For Hnath, the collaboration fits his own long-standing interests in storytelling.
“One of the first projects I did in high school was an adaptation of the Zen koan for Sen-jo. Sen-jo is separated from her soul – there’s the soul and then there’s the body. And who is the real Sen-jo? I think I’ve become somewhat fixated on the tension between physical and mental or spiritual. So that was always in the background.”