nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 9, 2009
How do all the new ways we have to connect and find information in a perpetually, inescapably, sometimes terrifyingly networked world—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, video and audio and instant-message chats, online personal ads, Google—actually affect the ways we relate to other people? Are we getting closer to or further away from each other—not to mention closer to or further away from really knowing ourselves—with each new profile, search, definition, piece of data that goes into the unavoidable digital ether? Without really staking claim to definitive answers for these questions, Waterwell's #9 investigates them through the prisms of four characters, a group of friends, each with a quest of his or her own, pursued down the alleys and byways of the Internet.
The piece—constructed as a kind of impressionistic patchwork that "clicks" in and out of scenes, overlays and underscores segments with video, revisits themes and stories from different angles, and is filled with music in variegated styles—has moments of magic and moments of muddle. One of the strongest things about it is its refusal to take sides with either the Luddites or the technophiles—its sharp observations, in the stronger moments, deal with both the wonder at and the banality of who, and what, can be found out there.
Each of our four central characters is engaging with the available technology in a different way. Hanna, the resister of social networking, is lost in her life—working as a bartender and a nanny, not really knowing who she is, she fights creating online profiles for herself because of the pressure of committing to self-definition in the public sphere; it's easier for her to hide behind aliases and anonymous commenting. She feels almost stalked by the omnipresence of media—not to mention that her phone is caught in a feedback loop of calling itself, and there's a hurricane that shares her name killing people in the Caribbean.
David's family is trapped by that hurricane, and one of the play's most moving moments is his inability to reach them after the storm despite all the technology available. He keeps calling and getting a busy signal, an anachronism that can only mean all is not well; wanting only to hear his mother's voice, all he gets is a sporadic text message, the faintest lifeline. Sinking into depression, he begins a spooky video dialogue with himself and the world, posting admissions of despair on YouTube.
Matt finds himself unexpectedly about to be a father, and is flat-out terrified. He dives into the Net looking for information, and is almost drowned by it: baby name sites, 3D video animations of his child in the womb, exhortations to buy strollers and furniture and diapers, advice from other parents. He looks to his own father and to David (already a father) for real-world advice, but neither seems able to give him anything concrete, whereas the Internet has an overwhelming swarm of the concrete.
And Kevin is looking for love. Still following his ex on Facebook, he delves into online dating, hopeful each time he makes what seems to be a connection with another guy, and increasingly ambivalent each time it falls apart. But then the broad network of Facebook seem to promise a way to reconnect with a never-consummated high-school love, a prospect both utterly wonderful and utterly terrifying.
The piece's strongest moments, for me, are the ones most grounded in specific emotional connections between humans, that seem to capture the joys and pains and messy intricacies of the technological possibilities in ways that the more inner-directed individual stories don't. David's search for his family has the deepest emotional register (helped by David Ryan Smith's amazing singing voice and the emotion he brings out in song); and the slow realization of his deep pain, and his inability to share it directly, is haunting. Kevin's romantic quest, expertly handled by Kevin Townley (my favorite musical number is Kevin's dialogue with the potential matches presented to him), too, mixes a sort of determinedly cockeyed optimism with poignancy, and is both humorous and touching.
Hanna's and Matt's stories, though, revolving more around searches for something inside oneself, don't translate as well. All the performers play multiple roles, and I found myself appreciating Hanna Cheek and Matt Dellapina more in their minor roles, outside of their primary characters (Hanna as David's mother, for example, and Matt as a potential date of Kevin's who reads his palm over the Internet, have shades that it sometimes seemed their primary characters didn't allow them to express).
Certain sections didn't connect for me at all—like a number of sequences set in "Echoland," a club that seems to be both virtual and real; although the club scenes feature some thoroughly enjoyable musical numbers, they sometimes seem to be showy for their own sake rather than serving a function in the show. And the jumping-around, nonlinear structure sometimes inspires unanticipated connections and sometimes just creates confusion—but I'm not sure it would be possible to tell this kind of story and ask these kinds of questions in any other form.
The medium is, in many ways, the message here; there's even a guest appearance by Marshall McLuhan to remind us. The scene between McLuhan and Kevin isn't one of the play's strongest—it's a bit heavy-handed—but it reminds us of how far and how fast we've come: We've traveled from the newspaper front pages and typewriter bits that decorate the walls of the set to the 24/7 video/Twitter/data feed represented by the projections and videos, in the space of most of our lifetimes, and this may only be the beginning. Even if not always entirely successful, #9 is asking the questions we need to ask to live in this new world we've created.