In the famous Peter Steiner cartoon, the family pooch has climbed onto a chair and is hovering over the keyboard of a computer. “On the Internet,” he explains to his canine buddy, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”
In Carlos Murillo’s dark play, nobody knows what the hell anybody else is, but they are willing to believe, and that’s just fine for Nick (James Flanagan) a small, skinny, vampire-pale young man who, as he tells us at the beginning of the play, “makes shit up.”
Those three words portend the opening of a Pandora’s box; the coming of a tsunami of terrible dissonance which will ruin the life of one man and almost cost another man his life. But the dissonance is aimed at you, too, because the way Nick spreads his toxins is through the magic box. The one you’re looking at. Right now.
See, the ‘net puts you in touch with the world of information – a thing inconceivable a generation ago. But – and you know this yourself, unless you are at present assisting the son of the former Treasurer of Nigeria in a money transfer – the internet is full of lies, and the higher the stakes the more likely it is that what you’re reading is a lie. Is it really true that Ron Paul wrote a racist article when he was in his forties? Or that Bill Gates will give you $200 if you e-mail him at MicroSoft, in order to test the system? Or that the person of your dreams, who you met in an internet chat room and is beautiful and witty and sweet, really loves you and wants to meet you in person but can’t because of a certain problem he or she can’t talk about.
It is this last possibility that ignites Nick’s motor, particularly when he finds his mark: a credulous 16-year-old boy, Adam (Brandon McCoy), who wants nothing more than to fall in love, and live happily ever after. Nick himself is only 14, but he uses the imagination of a novelist and the cunning of a master criminal to work his will over Adam, presenting him in rapid succession with Rachel (the marvelous Casie Platt), a young woman who loves and desires Adam; with Rachel’s disgusting stepfather (Cliff Williams III, as good as I’ve ever seen him), who wants Rachel for his own dark purposes; and with Oliva (Charlotte Akin), a police detective who pulls Adam up short and holds him to account for the frantic series of events which Adam knows about only through the internet.
All of these characters are Nick’s creation, of course; his design is simply to manipulate Adam…and when he finds out that he can, his design becomes to make Adam like him, and then love him. All this is a form of dark play, which, as Nick’s exceedingly goofy theater teacher, Ms. Spiegel (Akin) explains to him, is a game which only some of the participants know they’re playing. This inevitably gives the players in the know a godlike feeling, and even as Adam becomes addicted to the fantasy Nick spins out for him, Nick becomes addicted to a world where he, and only he, is in control. Such a thing can only end badly, and it does.
It is a great comfort to know that Akin is back in Washington, and apparently for good. In this production, she exhibits a hitherto-unshown gift for comedy: her Spiegel is at once recognizable and fresh, and she inhabits three other dramatic characters in authoritative detail. Williams, who takes advantage of his formidable physique to radiate menace, and Platt, who is the very essence of sweetness as the phantasmal lover, both make themselves so organic to the play’s narrative that when Nick conjures them up it seems like a sort of magic trick.
But it is the two wonderful principals, McCoy as Adam and Flanagan as Nick, who make this play chilling and heartbreaking. McCoy plays up his character’s fundamental decency as he trudges through the depredations Nick lays out for him. McCoy’s Adam could be your next-door neighbor, or the fella who delivers your mail. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you can hardly blame a sixteen-year-old boy for wanting to find true love, or for believing everything he reads on the internet. McCoy accomplishes the hard task of keeping Adam likeable as he plunges oblivious into his fate.
As hard as that task is, Flanagan has an even harder one – to keep us from hating his character as he leads us deeper and deeper into the heart of his destructive imagination. He pulls it off by holding his vulnerability before us like a lamplight. As we move from toxic act to toxic act, we see Nick’s self-loathing pool out – not because of what Nick has done, but because of who he is. It is a bravura performance, and helps make dark play one of the best shows I have seen this year.
dark play is based on a true story – I know this, because I read it on the internet – and Murillo makes truth his subject. He causes the goofy teacher Spiegel to say the play’s truest line. “The best theater takes the audience on a journey into the darkest, most dangerous regions of the human soul,” she tells her indifferent students. “And at the end of that journey, the audience … can recognize that darkness and danger in their own souls, and actively take steps to change it.”
Isn’t it odd – and credible – that this silly, foolish, self-absorbed teacher is the source of truth in this play, and that the great and powerful internet is nothing but a house of lies?
dark play, or stories for boys
By Carlos Murillo
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by Forum Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.