Can life be lived offline anymore? That’s what the eight characters are exploring as part of an Internet addiction support group in “Octet,” a beautifully sung a cappella chamber musical by Dave Malloy.
So much feels so smart and spot-on about this latest theater piece from the creator and composer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” that theatergoers may want to excuse the show’s excesses. We will also probably feel forgiving toward the addicted characters’ obsessions and compulsions. Their problems, after all, are likely to be our own.
There are so many ways these days to be gripped by “the Monster,” which is what the addicts of “Octet” call online life. In “Hymn: Monster,” the entire cast sings, sounding like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Rent:
It’s a new kind of monster
It sputters sighs and cries
Raving in garbage tongues and grunts
And poor punctuation
One by one the characters get a chance to share their personal stories of addiction with the group, in songs that have both pleasing melodies and some pointed lyrics.
Jessica is the victim of public shaming via social media because of a video of her yelling at a stranger that went viral – but she can’t keep from Googling herself to check out the latest meme at her expense.( “It was like my eyes were sewn open/ with a piece of electric thread/Go to bed.”) Henry’s addiction is to online gaming, especially any games that feature candy (“All the candy never stops/Dayglo go-go underground/ No one else around.”) For Ed and Karly, it’s dating apps (“So many men in my pocket”/I roll through my infinite scroll.) and also porn (“Porn is solitaire/Scentless and safe/We have sucked the sacrament out of sex.”) Toby rants on Internet chat rooms (“When I’m in the real world I can’t even interface/I just wanna scroll down, you know?/ Scroll down, scroll down, you know?/ Get to the fucking point.”) In “Glow,” Paula sings about how her husband’s attachment to his phone has gotten in the way of their marriage – the title describes the light from his phone at night, which he scrolls through, his back to her, in bed. (His thumb scrolls through his phone/I feel it ripple in my bones”)
There is great metaphorical aptness in the arrangements for these songs. They are being presented unaccompanied by musical instruments – just like the characters who sing them are trying to do without technology, at least for the duration of the support group meeting. And the songs include harmonious choral support (Jessica’s song, for example, is entitled “Refresh,” which is the gospel-like refrain from what have become her back-up singers) — just like the group offers support to each of its members.
It’s not just metaphors that “Octet” gets right. Scenic designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are hilariously meticulous in their recreation of the kind of church basement that houses 12-step meetings – the bulletin board cluttered with very realistic-looking announcements of other support groups and protests and rallies; the free coffee; even the precise way the wood floor is partially polished, partially scuffed and has tiles missing.
I’ve been impressed with David Malloy’s commitment to adapting serious art into popular entertainment for a decade, ever since I saw the Ontological-Hysteric Theater production of his “Three Pianos,” which he described as “a drunken romp through Schubert’s ‘Winterreise.’” It takes more than musical ability to fashion a tuneful pop opera out of a section of War And Peace; it takes a kind of fearless intelligence.
But rather than applying that intelligence to make an arcane subject accessible, as he has done in much of his work, Malloy too often attempts just the opposite in “Octet.” He injects the arcane into what is to most New York theatergoers an inherently accessible subject, the excesses of online life. At its most harmless, a boastful-seeming intelligence seeps into some of the lyrics. In “Glow,” for example, Paula follows the straightforward
We don’t sleep well
My husband and I
Our Circadian rhythms
Corrupted by the sallow blue glow of a screen
Sucking our souls and melatonin
Too many of the characters get so much of this same high-toned vocabulary for us to hear it as part of each individual’s personality. This is especially true since we learn little about most of these characters other than their addictions. Rather, these lines sound like something Dave Malloy would say, while (excuse me) showing off.
We do learn that Marvin (J.D. Mollison) is a scientist, and his scene is one of the two that diverge from the rest. He tells an anecdote about how he and his colleagues at a lab met God, who was first a computer-like voice but then an 11 year old girl dressed in a mermaid’s outfit. As Marvin catalogues the scientists’ reactions, trying out different hypotheses, the scene becomes an exploration/satire of the disconnect between science and religion. “We beheld an infinity of wonders—and yet we sat at our desks in stoic calculation, stripped of awe, paralyzed by the unforgiving relentlessness of our intellect.”
One could argue with only a bit of a stretch that this fits in with the theme, if not the narrative, of “Octet” – the damage caused to our psyche by our reliance on technology.
It’s more difficult to see the point of the injection of the esoteric practice of tarot cards. The only first-time visitor to the support group, Velma (Kuhoo Verma), eventually reveals she’s “into tarot.” But Malloy himself seems to be too – in the playbill, each of the 12 songs is paired with a tarot card, e.g.
1. Hymn: The Forest (XVIII, The Moon.)
I have little doubt this use of tarot and similarly obscure elements is well thought-out, but it added nothing for me. I also trust in Malloy’s sincerity when in an insert in the program, he lists more than 50 texts, games, theatre, films, music, podcasts and tarot that inspired “Octet,” adding “…this list is by no means exhaustive.” But it is a tad exhausting.
Luckily, this first musical produced by Signature Theatre brings out enough of what’s best about Malloy’s work – thanks to Annie Tippe’s lively direction, the eight-member cast’s lovely singing, and the delightful musical direction by Or Matias — to justify the 100-minute respite from gazing at your screens.
Music, lyrics and book by Dave Malloy; directed by Annie Tippe; music supervision and music direction by Or Matias; scenic design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta; lighting by Christopher Bowser; sound by Hidenori Nakajo; production stage manager, Jhanaë Bonnick
Cast: Adam Bashian (Ed), Kim Blanck (Karly), Starr Busby (Paula), Alex Gibson (Henry), Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), J.D. Mollison (Marvin), Margo Seibert (Jessica) and Kuhoo Verma (Velma).
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $99. (The only tickets available are after June 18 and so no longer at the subsidized price)
Octet is on stage through June 30