Clever 'Line One' gives new meaning to actors phoning in a performance

On paper, the premise of Annex Theatre's newest offering, "Line One," sounds like the sort of force-fed experiment that ought to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness. Luckily, director/creator John Kaufmann has a way of transcending the more obvious possibilities of the format.

The setup starts with eight cellphone-wielding actors and no script. Their phone numbers are shared with various outside sources (including previous audiences) who phone in — literally — the night's performance in real time. There's a theme and a time frame, but the callers are otherwise left to their own devices.

The actors-by-proxy then repeat verbatim what they hear in their ear pieces to the waiting audience.

Improv acting via cellular phone? Sounds like a train wreck.

Now that we've covered all the reasons to turn your nose up at "Line One," let's get to the real story: "Line One" is utterly, paradoxically, delightful.

It's not surprising if you're familiar with Kaufmann's previous work — a couple of shows at the Pacific Science Center planetarium — which also used technology and improvisation to rare advantage.

Where does Kaufmann go right where others could have gone so wrong?

First, by using cellphones that apparently work on the fourth story of a brick building.

The few missed connections were handled well by Kaufmann's ensemble cast, whose willingness to bask in the trivia of this silly premise counted for most of its success.

Kaufmann uses said cast (and silly premise) to paint a lovely, if stuttering, portrait of the minutiae of his callers' lives.

On opening night, titled "Home," actors took virtual tours through the cluttered homes of Seattleites and beyond, ruminating on empty boxes and refrigerator art, reminiscing about childhood experiences, waxing poetical about the nature of a home.

The cast demonstrates a noble concentration for the difficult task of being listener and speaker simultaneously, while still keeping an eye on the fact that they've got an audience for the phone call.

Most nobly of all, the "Line One" cast manages to find subtle humor in the midst of tasks like reciting the Fair Housing Act or attempting a vocal recreation of the pre-show music, which was also phoned in.

What does this all mean? Possibly, something about the nature of art and communication in a technological age, which would fit in well with Kaufmann's previous efforts. Though even if the only point was to showcase these performers and have a little fun with cellphones, "Line One" succeeds marvelously.

Theater review

'Line One,' conceived by John Kaufmann. Produced by Annex Theatre. Runs Friday-Sunday at the Chamber Theatre, 1529 10th Ave. E., 4th floor, Seattle. $7 (Thurs. pay-what-you-can); 206-728-0933.