'The Sublet Experiment'

"It's odd being the director," says Michelle Tattenbaum of helming Ethan Youngerman's new play The Sublet Experiment, being performed on weekends in New York City apartments. "You'd think an idea like this would start with a director, but it grew out of a conversation in the playwright's head. Ethan started working on a play, and it occurred to him it could be done in apartments. A year ago we had a great meeting, he told me his idea, and I said, 'Oh, my God, that sounds wonderful.' "

But the execution of the play—about "a serial sublettor, a reality show reject, and the worst bank robbers in history," according to a press release—is "far more complicated than the initial idea," Tattenbaum notes. For starters, there's how to block it: "There are no back crosses in apartments, so if someone exits into the bedroom, their next entrance has to be from the bedroom." Plus there are other factors, like knowing that each playing space, down to the wall color—or the presence of walls, period—will vary from site to site. Plus all the insurance and liability questions, fire code questions, and, well, how many people can a typical Gotham living room handle, anyway? What if a phone or doorbell rings? What if Fido barks? What if you spot a roach? And who'd temporarily give up their apartment to a play?

Says Tattenbaum, "When we first talked about doing this, we thought we'd rent an apartment. I mean, there's stuff in the play about Craigslist! But the more we looked—and the more we met with people at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts—the clearer it became that paying to use someone's apartment would complicate things a thousandfold. Nobody knows us, so to say, 'Can we sublet your apartment and can you sign this agreement? Can you put us in touch with your landlord?,' seemed a tad unrealistic. We started thinking that since people can invite other people into their home, then you can do whatever you want, right?"

Within limits, of course. And as it turned out, Tattenbaum, Youngerman, and their co-producer, John Pinckard, knew a small posse of people interested in hosting a performance weekend. But The Sublet Experiment, she says, "has to have a bare minimum—like the kitchen has to go into the living room; it can't be off a hallway." And while cleaning the apartment is part of what must be a very curious load-in every weekend, "Yeah, there could always be a bug."

It seems the key is remembering Youngerman's idea: a play occurring in an apartment. "That's why the rule is, everything in the play is real," Tattenbaum says. "If neighbors are really loud, I've told the actors, 'Acknowledge it.' One night during a run-through, it was the oddest thing. It sounded like a pack of dogs yapping, like a dog walker with 10 dogs was in the hall, and the actors sort of ignored it. I said, 'Look out the window! Look like the yapping dogs are really happening. It's not like we're in an apartment pretending to be in Nebraska. The play takes place in an apartment.' "

Surely one test of any site-specific work is how the more banal aspects of the experience—say, how tickets are taken—are handled. "Most of it is done in advance, so ideally there's not much cash changing hands," Tattenbaum says. "Also, we don't give out the apartment number, because we don't want people buzzing if they're late. People only have the street address, and then the house manager, in the vestibule of the building, checks them in and gives them a program. We want to protect the privacy of our host." Of the play's first four venues, those in Washington Heights, the West Village, and Astoria seat 14; the one in Chelsea, 22. To forestall stolen valuables and breakables, the cast and crew "help pack things up and put them in bedrooms, and that's also why our stage manager is there: There's always someone in the room."

It goes without saying that the cast of four—Erin Maya Darke, Adam Hyland, Marshall Sharer, and Christian Maurice—is game (and nonunion). And as for that first question about blocking, "It's completely elastic," Tattenbaum says. "When we were casting, one thing we looked for [was] asking the actor to physically move around. We'd move the furniture and ask the actor to do the scene again—adjusting to our adjustments to the space. Some amazing actors just weren't gifted that way. To those who were, I'd say, 'Okay, if you want to cross here, I just want to see a physical movement to mark this beat.' So it wasn't just, 'Cross from the couch to the chair.' And we only rehearsed in people's apartments to accustom the actors.

"Really, it's been an exercise in lack of control for a director," Tattenbaum concludes. "You can't, as a director, shape a stage picture or craft a specific moment in this kind of situation. But you do have to figure out ways to tell the story and to make sure actors know the story they're telling. If all that's clear, it doesn't matter if they cross this way or that."

The Sublet Experiment is having an open run at various locations in New York City. Tickets: (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com. Website: www.subletexperiment.com.