Internet Narcissus

The beauty of I Google Myself, Jason Schafer's new play, is that the title alone raises an uneasy personal identification for anyone with a computer and a broadband connection. The words "I Google myself" elicit a sheepish kind of embarrassment, that out of boredom, curiosity, ego, or a combination of all three, we all at one time or another have wanted to see what a collection of URLs on the Internet says about our place in the world. For the play's characters, one person's search for his name in Google leads to an entanglement of obsession, loneliness, and ego that culminates in unsettling shocks of violence. Even though a name is what drives the story's action, the name itself is never revealed.

A meek Home Depot employee with a hot-air balloon fetish, known as One (Tim Cusack), conducts a Google search of his name (in parentheses, he notes, to narrow the search results that would otherwise extend to near infinity) and discovers that a male porn star shares his name. Fascinated, he concocts a way to meet his more masculine and confident namesake, Two (Nathan Blew), and the ensuing interview leads to a revelation that Two knows someone who also shares their name.

One, now driven by sexual obsession with Two, meets this person, Three (John Gardner), a perpetually stoned mechanic who posts poetry on his blog. What happens next is the kind of story that would generate controversy on cable news channels and TV talk shows, and in the play's universe, it actually does.

This could have easily been a one-note gimmick about how Google has permeated our culture and lexicon ("Google" is now synonymous with searching for something online). But instead, the play is an insightful and entertaining window into our society's preoccupation with fame and recognition, and how Internet innovations like blogs and online chats promote one's quest to be known, even as the same technology can lead to a debilitating isolation that increases the need for connection.

Cusack is brilliant in his role as the nerdy but manipulative stalker whose manic Google searches spark a strange series of events that embroil all three men. He uses a slow, almost Valley Girl-like drawl to ask Two personal questions with a hilarious sycophancy that gradually bleeds into a dangerous and cunning infatuation. Cusack manages to play both sides of his character with equal intensity. For such a slight figure, he is in complete command of the stage, and one can see why the other two men find him hard to shake, even when he is at his creepiest.

Blew and Gardner, two men with the same name and a shared history, are also well suited to their roles. They play complete opposites: Blew is appealingly arrogant in the pride he takes in his film roles (he specializing in slapping), while Gardner infuses his character with a genial dopiness. Both are funny in their parts, and all three play well off one another, acting in a tight space that only ramps up the tension existing between their characters.

The action plays out against a cheeky yet simple set design, in which a Google map is blown up as a black and gray backdrop, once again illustrating how we all can be located in the recesses of the Web, whether we want to be or not.

The only off element was the interstitial music that was played before the performance began and during scene changes. The ominous soundscape with dial-up connection noises and voice-overs was too out of step with the dark comedy; it tried too hard at setting a tone that was firmly established by the characters and the actors who gave them life. I Google Myself is bitterly funny all on its own and does not need a horror movie soundtrack to communicate how troubling it is.

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