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Stage Review

Good ‘Enough’? It’s up to the audience.

Reflective crowd vital to ‘play’ about values

Mia Katigbak plays a character and poses unscripted questions to audience members in 'How Much Is Enough.' Mia Katigbak plays a character and poses unscripted questions to audience members in "How Much Is Enough." (Mike Ritter/Ritterbin.com)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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‘How Much Is Enough: Our Values in Question’’ is by turns profound and banal.

The thing is, I have no idea which, if either, of those adjectives will apply to any performance you may choose to attend.

A world-premiere production of the Foundry Theatre now at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, “How Much Is Enough’’ varies from night to night because it relies to an exceptionally large degree on unscripted input from the audience.

With three performers who act primarily as interlocutors in a discussion of what we value and why, it feels more like an encounter session, focus group, or Oprah-style talk show than a theater piece. On opening night, most audience members strove to give thoughtful answers. There were moments of soul-baring poignancy, honesty, and eloquence.

There were also, inevitably, periods of look-at-your-watch tedium, when “How Much Is Enough’’ fell victim to the law of diminishing returns and audience members offered rote or awkward replies. The performers/interlocutors who were guiding the conversation did not always seem to realize how much was enough.

Speaking of that trio: The show might have more oomph if all three of the performers’ characters, rather than just one, had been furnished a back story by writer Kirk Lynn.

“How Much Is Enough’’ is structured to roughly mirror the life cycle - birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age, death - and to touch upon the concerns that dog us at every step along that journey: family, education, money, faith, career, the difficulty of finding love. Asked what question she wants to have answered before she dies, one young woman bluntly replied, to laughter: “Am I ever gonna find the right man?’’

Given the recession-era difficulty in launching careers experienced by members of what a recent New York Times article called “Generation Limbo,’’ it was touching when another college-age woman, asked what her biggest hope for the future is, answered: “That I’m going to end up doing what I love, what I actually want to do.’’

The questions started coming even before the show began. As spectators sat down at tables, they found that white-lettered queries, beamed from overhead projectors, were scrolling across the tables in a steady march: “Do you know your neighbors?’’ “What’s your one ambition for the world?’’ “Do you value competition?’’ “At what age do you think kids start to understand money?’’

Then three performers materialized and began to move among the tables. Freddie, played by Erwin E.A. Thomas, slowly emptied a container of coins onto the floor. Marissa (Mia Katigbak) began to pose a series of thought-provoking questions to the audience. She asked them to raise their hands if they felt they were ready for something new in their lives, if they’d be willing to make a sacrifice to obtain that something new, if they felt they’d sacrificed enough already, and then topped it off with a more challenging query: “Who feels the way I make my money is a reflection of my values?’’

Carlo, played by Noel Joseph Allain, confided that his girlfriend is pregnant and solicited advice about parenthood from the audience. He called up one spectator (full disclosure: on opening night it was a friend who accompanied me to the performance) for advice on how to “have a good birth’’ and how the spectator learned values as a child. As was the case for the rest of the performance, a wall-mounted screen displayed images of Google searches that corresponded to the general topic under discussion (in this case, “Costs of raising a child’’).

Childhood proved fertile territory. For instance, a woman described how she explored her father’s dresser drawer as a child and discovered a gun. But she was not asked the obvious follow-up questions about how she felt or whether she asked her father why he had a weapon in their house.

As the evening progressed, the performers guided the audience through a conversation on what Freddie described as “the enduring ambiguities of adult life.’’ Some of their questions, such as “Who do you really work for?,’’ were trenchant, and elicited heartfelt responses. “I work for what I believe in, for what expresses my values,’’ one woman replied. Others, such as “Which has a bigger impact on your life, the government or the economy?,’’ were ho-hum, and led nowhere.

At least on opening night, the best answers came from the young people in the room. When Carlo noted that his yet-to-be-born daughter will likely see him die, fretted that “I want to do it right,’’ and opened up a discussion about death, a college-age woman offered this insight: “Every time someone thinks of you after you die, that’s an afterlife.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH: Our Values in Question

Directed by Melanie Joseph

Co-created by Kirk Lynn and Joseph. Written by Lynn.

Production by Foundry Theatre. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

At: Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre.

Through Sept. 25. Tickets $15-$49, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org