nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 1, 2006
A couple of years ago, there was an article in Vanity Fair about two teenage boys in England who met in an Internet chat room, became fast friends, and ultimately found themselves embroiled in a situation that turned dangerous and potentially lethal. From this sensational-but-true tale comes 6969, a fictionalized exploration of these events, written for the stage by Jordan Seavey and produced by the ever-more-exciting young troupe CollaborationTown. This workshop presentation runs for just four performances, but it's already a hugely professional endeavor, one that promises—with a bit of editing and polishing—to be a terrific and original work of the theatre.
The outlines of the story are these: Mark is a very ordinary 16-year-old. He goes to a Christian high school, he plays sports, he smokes a little marijuana, he lusts for girls (but is still very much a virgin). His parents are present but only that; he spends most of his time—and more and more of it—on his computer, specifically on the Internet. Here he has met John, a precocious 14, whose neediness is exceeded only by his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep Mark chatting with him.
In the hopes of making Mark like him better, John hooks him up in the chat room with Samantha, a sexually advanced 16-year-old who eventually gets him to do some computer sex with her (and to expose his private parts to her, via webcam, as well). This gets Mark into some trouble with Samantha's step-brother Timothy, who turns up in the chat room sometime afterward, and subsequently with a psychopath named Damien who seems to be stalking Samantha and a government investigator on Damien's tail named Kathy. And then things turn really hairy.
Much of 6969's appeal lies in the suspenseful yarn that Seavey skillfully spins, so to tell more would be inappropriate. Suffice to say that, except for the final scenes, which are muddy and unsatisfying, the play is riveting throughout. Seavey, his director Matthew Hopkins, and a hugely talented cast, solve a number of potential problems neatly. Ryan Purcell not only seems authentically 16 in the pivotal role of Mark, but also seems authentically naive and trusting (as opposed to gullible or stupid) as he sinks deeper and deeper into the online morass that John has unwittingly led him into.
As John, Max Rosenak is not quite so convincingly 14, but he's spectacularly adept at showing us how this lost and lonely teenager has become prey to his obsessions. Indeed, the particular triumph of 6969 is its portrait of a computer nerd gone way out of control: "I googled Jesus," John says at one point, and we understand that he went methodically through a great many of the 184 million hits that his search yielded. Mark's parents are emotionally remote but available, but John seems to have no parents at all; it is this weird generational alienation inherent in the technoculture of kids who grew up with the Web that Seavey taps into and captures so cannily here.
Hopkins separates Mark's real life from his virtual life with a chain-link fence (the apt set design, making excellent use of the intimate Manhattan Theatre Source space, is by Geoffrey Decas). Similiarly, while Mark and John and Mark's parents dress as you and I would, the other denizens of the chat room are clad in wildly exaggerated couture befitting the stereotypes they embody (costumes are designed by Leon Dobkowski). Brandon Wolcott's sound and Laura Happel's lighting complete the very evocative ambience of the piece. Hopkins's pacing, taut and sturdy throughout, propels the piece forward relentlessly and thrillingly.
Seavey's opening gambit, in which he inserts himself into the proceedings in a couple of unusual ways, does not neceesarily feel justified by what happens (but it's cool); and the ending of 6969 neither ties up all remaining loose ends nor provides closure by looping back effectively to the ideas at the play's beginning. (I am confident, however, that Seavey and his collaborators will solve this with their trademark ingenuity after they look at the results of this workshop.)
I'll conclude by saying that the supporting cast is outstanding, with TJ Witham and Jesica Avellone (who are in their mid-20s) doing fine work against type as Mark's parents; Dan Stowell, Philip Taratula, Julia Henderson, and Terri Gabriel all spookily effective as some of the scary people Mark is confronted with in the chat room; and Boo Killebrew as usual threatening to steal the show as burgeoning sexpot Samantha. CollaborationTown should be proud of how far they've come with developing this fascinating piece; I can't wait to see what they've got once they've finished working on it.