They're Just Like Us
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2006
Once upon a time, people communicated to each other face-to-face or by writing letters—those were pretty much the only choices—and they knew a great deal about the people in their circle as a result. Nowadays, we have dozens of ways to express ourselves. But do we actually know anybody, and does anybody know us?
That's the question at the heart of Boo Killebrew's smart, funny, and compelling new play They're Just Like Us, which is currently being presented by the exciting young company CollaborationTown in an intoxicatingly breathless production directed by Mike Doyle. You'll have a lot of fun at this show, but I think you'll find yourself thinking—as I did—long after the curtain goes down about what kind of world our celebrity- and high-tech culture has wrought.
Killebrew's script follows nine characters managing the public aspects of their lives with varying levels of competence. At one end of the spectrum are Biz and Beth, the former a rap star who's hit it big and now has a coterie of professionals protecting him and his earning capacity from the masses, the latter an actress on the way up who finds herself forced to choose between pursuing fame and maintaining a meaningful relationship with the man she loves. At the other end is that man, Richard. When he observes that, while he spends his time looking at Beth, she spends her time looking "out," he understands that their relationship is in severe jeopardy.
In the middle, and very much at the crux of Killebrew's play, are a passel of twentysomethings who behave like rock stars but are actually just plain old ordinary folk like you and me. They do this not out of ego but rather because that's the way the alienating world they occupy seems to expect them to behave. We see them randomly intersecting with one another in public places (not hanging out conveniently in one spot, the way sitcom characters do, but slamming into each other on street corners and subways, the way real people do). They don't have conversations: they broadcast news updates about their own and their lives to one another; every exchange ends with a promise to call or text.
Killebrew nails this information-overloaded age of ours, and the way it diminishes actual communication. These four hopeful/hapless people at the center of her play—Ann, Gene, Jen, and Frank are their names—are corners of a complicated set of unrequited love triangles, but not one of them is aware of this (though we are, constantly); they just haven't slowed down long enough to notice. Instead, they've reduced each other to headlines: Ann is adopting a baby from Africa, Jen is in rehab, Frank is having an affair with a guy from a TV show, and Gene is suddenly mysterious and out-of-touch. I love the way Killebrew has so cannily captured these "Friends" for the IM age.
There are two more personages in They're Just Like Us, pulling together the play's themes: Marty, a "slow" kid who has decided to invite Biz to his birthday party and manages to turn the affair into the social event of the season, and Liz, an older woman who is trying to figure out how to make sure that somebody remembers her after she's gone. Liz turns out to be, quite specifically, a projection of one of the story's characters, but in a way she's all of us: what, after all, do any of us want but some trace of ourselves left behind after we've departed the scene?
Doyle's staging is fluid and breathless on Ann Bartek's simple, spare set; design elements (Meredith Neal's costumes, Ryan Trupp's lighting, and Brandon Wolcott's sound) are all quite effective. The cast of nine is outstanding, too, with author Killebrew a standout as Jen, the most neurotic of the four young friends, and Jordan Seavey (Frank), Carly Cioffi (Ann), TJ Witham (Marty), and Hana Roth Seavey (Liz) also doing particularly memorable work.
CollaborationTown has, in just a few years, made a name for themselves as one of NYC's most consistently inventive and interesting new indie theatre companies. This strikes me as their most perceptive work to date. They deserve to be as famous as the characters in this play seem to want to be; let's just hope that we don't lose them all to TV and movies too quickly!