Brave New World

One of the best things that BecauseHeCan does is to serve as a kind of consumer warning for its audiences. Some theatergoers may know their Pinter better than their printer, so they are apt to learn a few things here about the dangers of computer identity theft. But while clever, the play ultimately becomes a victim of its own pretensions: it tries too hard to be edgy and comes off as somewhat entertaining yet devoid of significance. Moreover, the drama, unlike in most suspense plays, falls instead of escalates as the production proceeds. What results is something that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. The piece is a techno-thriller by two-time Pulitzer nominee Arthur Kopit that takes place in a digitally dystopian New York City and concerns Joseph and Joanne, a seemingly happy, wealthy, and successful Manhattan couple. A member of the city's literati, Joseph (Ronald Guttman) is a publisher and apparently an author in his own right. One night he invites over for dinner a group of his creative writing students. Among them is a blue-haired, disheveled young man in tattered jeans and a trench coat, named Astrakhan (Karl Gregory).

The "he" in the title presumably refers to Astrakhan, who, unbeknownst to Joseph and Joanne, is a gifted and sinister hacker poised to use his computer skills against them. You might wonder why, but then there is that title. More to the point, Astrakhan has fallen in love (or lust) with the fetching Joanne (Ylfa Edelstein). Determined to have her, he digitally assumes the identity of her Luddite husband to make it appear that Joseph is an international dealer in child porn. Most of the play takes place "after the fact," and there are lengthy explanations of how identity theft occurs and what will happen legally to Joseph, as well as what has (or has not) already occurred between Astrakhan and Joanne.

Clearly, Astrakhan wants to Oedipally assume Joseph's sexual relationship with his wife. But he also wants to shift the weight of cultural power from Joseph's old world—that of books, literature, and print—to a new age of digital supremacy, where who you are is not as important as the computerized representations of who you seem to be.

The production suffers from a number of problems. The sound and lighting try to seem gritty, but one can only take so many buzzing noises and strobe-light effects, especially when the strobe light exactly matches the color of the antagonist's hair. The dialogue, though sometimes glib and witty, often seems as if it is trying too hard to be those things. Meanwhile, this Manhattan couple comes off as too sophisticated for their own good. Joseph and Joanne are so self-assured, smug, and shallow (but in a "aren't we clever and cosmopolitan" kind of way) that you almost don't care if their lives get ruined.

Also, at times the lines are so pithy and so frequent that some of the actors, especially in the second scene between Joseph and the FBI agents, ran over them without giving the language room to breathe. In several scenes, the actors seemed in a hurry just to get through the dialogue.

Although it's a thriller, little is exciting about the play. The mystery at the beginning—why Joseph is being targeted by the police—is intriguing. But the action never builds, and the last scene results in a rambling explanation of what buttons Joseph pushed on his laptop while sitting on the porch months ago.

That said, credit is due to the dazzling set design, When the audience walks in, it sees what seems like a cross between some kind of near-future S&M bar and a dungeon inside a computer. The stage is set in an arena style, and all around the walls there are 0's and 1's, the binary code that is the basis for all computer coding, while green lights project globular shapes over the floor. It is a bit overwhelming, but that's the idea: the audience should feel estranged from the new, technological world represented by Astrakhan.

As Joseph, Guttman not only looks the part but played the too-cool-for-the-New-School act particularly well, especially when things begin to fall apart. He seems unperturbed that his world has been turned inside out. Edelstein, as Joanne, balanced the part of the slut and the good wife without giving the audience too much of either, ambiguously leaving the truth up to conjecture. As Astrakhan, Gregory was funny and had the range to come off as sick too, although the monologue he delivers at the end, which should be macabre, was somewhat stale.

The play has some saving moments—among them, its often smart and humorous dialogue, even if it is delivered with such coolness and so quickly that its richness can be overlooked. Overall, though, BecauseHeCan simply can't: it's an impressive-looking production but in bad need of repair.

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