“Meta-puzzles,” like the doozy David Kwong reveals at the end of “Inside the Box,” are those that arise, ghostlike, from the corpse of ordinary ones. You may recognize the concept from Lewis Carroll’s acrostic poems for Alice, in which the first letter of each line spells out her name, or even from the Hebrew bible. Making things knotty, then knottier, and finally unknotting them, is an innate human urge, designed to delight but also to train the mind. Everything in life, after all, is a puzzle that needs solving.
Theater is one way we prepare for those life puzzles; drama and comedy force you to walk (or trip) through the moral questions of existence. Another form of preparation, I learned during a lifetime spent deciphering and later creating crosswords, is the kind Kwong demonstrates in his 90-minute show from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, livestreaming through Jan. 3. Retelling stories of the great enigmatologists, he not only argues for the value of gamesmanship, especially during a pandemic that keeps us isolated and needful of distraction, but turns the audience, arrayed in a crossword-like Zoom grid, into a virtual game board.
Except for one quick trick with a Rubik’s Cube, “Inside the Box” doesn’t offer much in the way of magic, which is what Kwong is best known for. (Viewers of the ABC series “Deception,” a crime drama he helped produce about a magician, have seen some of his illusions in action.) It’s also not especially theatrical, as there are no characters or story beyond what’s necessary to set up the seven games viewers are asked to play, involving Spoonerisms, homophones, anagrams and the like. Eventually, though, the way these elements coalesce into the final meta-puzzle provides a rush of pleasure reminiscent of a good closing number in a musical.
While waiting for that to happen, you may notice something else worthwhile going on. Sitting in its Zoom boxes, the audience of 24 individuals or households becomes a community, however temporarily. As each game proceeds, Kwong — the 25th — solicits solutions from volunteers who have raised their hands. (Yes, this is a Zoom show in which you are asked to keep your cameras on and your mics open.) Sometimes he’ll ask the entire group, or segments of it, to work together, as in Voice Boxes, a game requiring five people to recite one word each until the words blur into a phrase. In truth, it didn’t work so well when I saw it.
Nor was it the only dud. Several segments seemed merely mild. I didn’t think the Knight’s Tour — a classic spatial challenge adapted for the 5-by-5 “chessboard” of Zoom — was worth its complicated setup. Die-hard puzzlers would probably find some of the other games too easy, at least by their fifth iteration. Especially unpromising was the hidden-word puzzle included in the preshow package that audiences are asked to download, print and solve ahead of time.
That puzzle, though, initiates a theme that Kwong keeps developing and varying. “Human beings are at their most creative when constrained,” he says, expressing the show’s structure but also its emotional thrust. Emotion is usually a stranger in such contexts; Kwong is too enthusiastic and wholesome (he calls himself an “olio of nerdiness”) to risk turning his beloved games into downers.
But the history of the form, he notes, is connected to loneliness and loss; the first New York Times crossword appeared two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, having been found too frivolous before it. Or as The Times’s founding crossword editor, Margaret Farrar, explained: “You can’t think of your troubles when solving a puzzle.”
Xylyl and rebecs and other olio-like obscurities aside, games admit anyone; a great pleasure of “Inside the Box” is the sight of families, including young children, participating. I may not be the perfect audience for it, longtime addict that I am. Still, anything that spreads the good word is fine by me. And that’s what Kwong’s show (like his previous one, “The Enigmatist”) does best.
Permit me, though, one last cavil. Rewarding (or rewording) puzzles should not require more effort in the explanation than they do in the solving. Every loose string of “Inside the Box” is pulled together in its final moments, but not without strain. So be it, I guess; even Stephen Sondheim made puzzles you sometimes didn’t know how you solved even after you solved them. Ever try his three-dimensional dodecahedron cryptic?
Nitpick over; a good meta-puzzle not only makes me happy, it makes me look for the larger scheme, the larger truth, the larger joke in everything. There are even meta-reviews, if you know where to find them.
Inside the Box
Through Jan. 3, 2021; geffenplayhouse.org
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