When the Voice You Hear Is Not the Actor You See

In the darkest moments of a family tragedy, when the playwright Mona Pirnot couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to her boyfriend or her therapist, she tried something a little unorthodox: She typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.

It was a coping mechanism that also sparked a creative pivot: Pirnot’s then-boyfriend, now-husband, Lucas Hnath, is also a playwright, with a longtime interest in sound and a more recent history of building shows around disembodied voices. His last play, “A Simulacrum,” featured a magician re-creating his side of a conversation with Hnath, whose voice was heard via a tape recording; and his play before that, “Dana H.,” featured an actress lip-syncing interviews in which the playwright’s mother recounted the trauma of having been abducted.

Now Hnath is directing Pirnot, who wrote and is the lone actor in “I Love You So Much I Could Die,” a diaristic exploration of how she was affected by a life-altering incident that incapacitated her sister at the start of the pandemic. In the 65-minute show, in previews Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop, Pirnot sits on a ladderback chair, facing away from the audience, while a Microsoft text-to-speech program reads her lines. Between chapters of storytelling, Pirnot plays the guitar and sings songs that she wrote.

Disembodied drama: Pirnot sits with her back to the audience for the entire play.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The computer’s voice is male, robotic, and, of course, unemotional; its cadence, and the length of pauses, varies based on how Pirnot and Hnath have punctuated the text. The program makes occasional mistakes — a running joke concerns the pronunciation of Shia LaBeouf — that the artists cherish. Hearing a machine recount stories of very human pain can be awkwardly funny, and audiences are laughing, particularly early in the show, as they adjust to the disorienting experience.

“I like the relentlessness that I can get with [the computer’s] voice that’s kind of shocking and surprising, and I find it to be at times very moving but at times extremely anxiety provoking,” Pirnot said. “This actually feels like I’m capturing and sharing a little bit of what this felt like.”

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