A man in a hazmat suit came on stage, to give us the usual spiel about the location of the exits and turning off our cell phones, and I thought: Ok, yes, the governor has declared a state of emergency in New York, but isn’t this carrying coronavirus precautions a bit too far? As it turns out, though, this box office manager making the announcements was being playful, wearing one of the costumes from ‘I Am Nobody,’ the latest quirky musical by Greg Kotis, who won two Tonys twenty years ago as the book writer and lyricist of “Urinetown,” the satirical musical about a future dystopian society in which citizens had to pay to pee. “I Am Nobody,” for which Kotis wrote the music as well as the words, takes place in a different dystopian society – our own, with its “supernatural contraptions” and social media and smart phones and the Internet.
“Could all this easy living be the source of all our troubles?” a character named Naomi (Sarah Coffey) sings in the first of the 15 songs in the show, accompanying herself on guitar. “Is it time to end modernity is what I’d like to know.”
That’s what Lucas (Inney Prakash) believes. He works as a technician in a plant that makes the chips for smart phones, along with his co-worker Nathaniel (Emilio Cuesta.) (Both of them wear those hazmat suits to avoid getting dust in the chips.) Unlike Nathaniel, Lucas is at the breaking point.
He listens to that first song by Naomi at the bar where she works as a waitress and part-time singer-songwriter, and feels inspired to go on a mission to “end modernity.”
“I Am Nobody” turns into something of a road movie, with Lucas stealing some highly-prized computer chips and going on the lam cross-country, and his boss Mr. Charles (Patrick McCartney) sending Nathaniel to get Lucas and the chips back. Naomi eagerly goes on the trip with Nathaniel, because she instantly fell for Lucas – and Nathaniel is eager to have her along, because he instantly fell for her.
There is plenty of humor in “I Am Nobody,” and some well-sung songs that generally feel like an homage to the Woodstock era, a mix of folk and rock (Think Joni Mitchell and Country Joe and the Fish), plus a couple of lovely ballads. The orchestrations call for live guitar, mandolin, ukulele played by the versatile cast…accompanied by, of all things, recorded music from a cell phone. The design ranges from impressive for such an obviously low budget (such as Anthony Dean’s lighting design and David Pym’s videos) to delightfully deliberately tacky (costume designer Ayun Halliday’s Elvis white suit that Lucas wears is fitted with little flashing lightbulbs, to which Mr. Charles’ busy electronic tie serves as counterpoint.) The acting is uneven — it might have been funnier if director Meghan Finn had been able to turn it down a notch or two — and there is not much of a plot, although it does have a few surprises; I won’t spoil them, except to say they’re too silly to find very satisfying. The biggest surprise might be to those expecting, underneath the Kotis characteristic wackiness, his usual sharp satire and spot-on parody. “I Am Nobody” often feels like an excuse to showcase the songs.
There is a message underneath the chaotic shenanigans and playlist — the need for community, cooperation, love…and a daily limit on how much time anybody should be spending online or on the phone. But seeing that box office manager in the hazmat suit at the outset made me wonder whether “I Am Nobody” is opening a month or two too late. At the moment, living in a virtual world away from human touch doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
I Am Nobody
at The Tank (312 West 36th Street)
Written by Greg Kotis, directed by Meghan Finn. Set design by Christopher and Justin Swader, costume design by Ayun Halliday, lighting design by Anthony Dean. Orchestrations, Vocal Arrangements & Music Direction by Michael Cassedy. Video and sound design by David Pym.
Cast: Sarah Coffey as Naomi, Emilio Christopher Cuesta as Nathaniel, Ayun Halliday as Miriam, Patrick McCartney as Mr. Charles, and Inney Prakash as Lucas.
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $25 – $35
I Am Nobody is on stage through March 28, 2020