Does the blue glow of your computer screen silently call to you at all hours of the day or night, interrupting your sleep, interfering with your relationships, consuming all your energy? Does your iPhone never leave your hand, whether you’re in the office, riding on the subway or on a date? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’re already likely aware that you are not alone! Still, the hyper-theatrical composer Dave Malloy (The Great Comet) is here to reassure you anyway in Octet, his striking a cappella musical, now being presented at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Scenic designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta have cleverly transformed the Center’s Linney Theatre into an uber-realistic facsimile of a church basement where the “Friends of Saul” hold their weekly meeting. The gathering follows some of the precepts of a standard 12-step meeting (“Hi, my name is…”), but it also includes the singing of some unusual communal hymns. Molloy artfully combines folk, classical and liturgical-sounding music and metaphorical language – and the group members’ confessions are mostly vocalized through song.
Malloy has taken inspiration from dozens of texts and plays, ranging from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Leaves of Grass to A Chorus Line, although the correlations to his sources are far from obvious. Indeed, for many of the meeting’s eight participants, their problems are exactly what you might expect. Jessica (the wonderful Margo Siebert) was unaware that a video she posted would not only go viral, but make her a laughing stock. Henry, a friendly if slightly awkward gay man (an endearing Alex Gregory), is obsessed with online games, especially those involving candy. And Karly and Ed (the equally strong-voiced Kim Blanck and Adam Bashian) attempt to deal with their loneliness through online dating sites and, yes, pornography.
We’re not given too much backstory on any of the show’s characters, but that turns out not to be as detrimental as we might first imagine. True, we learn group leader Paula (a fantastic Starr Bundy) is married to a man with the same addiction as her; that Marvin (a fine J.D. Mollison) is a scientist trying to juggle his career with a newborn baby in the house; and newcomer Velma (an excellent Kuhoo Verma) is hyper-obsessed with spirituality, not to mention slightly skeptical of the group. (Her biggest problem, however, is concealed until the gorgeous final song.) Yet it’s always clear that it's their common devotion to online communication that intrigues Malloy, not their individual situations.
Sadly, the show loses some steam after an hour, and not just because of the subject’s limited scope. A rant from the frustrated Toby (a passionate Justin Gregory Lopez) is too “intellectual” for its own good, and Marvin’s story about hearing “God” while in a science chat room late at night and then “God” reappearing in his lab the next day simply goes on way too long to keep our attention. Fortunately, even in the show’s dullest moments, director Annie Trippe creates significant visual interest, primarily by moving the cast smartly around the circular playing space, and lighting designer Christopher Bowser contributes to the atmosphere with some nifty effects.
In the end, though, eight is enough (and maybe more than enough) to examine this 21st-century cultural dilemma. Now, stop reading, turn off the power button, and get back to “real” life.