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The Blogger's Bubble

January 14, 2009

With the Web, nothing is secret anymore. So what else is new?

There comes a time in every blogger's life when she discovers an alarming truth: People actually read her words. I started blogging partly out of a desire to share Important Cultural Musings with other like-minded individuals, and partly out of a simple need to unload. In truth, though, I scarcely believed that anyone besides my mother would bother to look at the thing. So when people started responding to posts on subjects as arcane as whether a theater critic should read a play before she reviews it, I was flummoxed. The information superhighway turned out to be faster and fuller of freaks than I had previously thought.

The paradox of seeking connection through online communication while simultaneously wishing to maintain your privacy is exposed in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's raucous if ultimately unsatisfying comedy, Trenchcoat in Common (or T.I.C. for short). He uses a fictional teenager's tell-all blog about her neighbors as a jumping-off point for a timely exploration of the impact of the information age on our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic habits. But while Encore Theatre Company's world premiere production directed by Ken Prestininzi zips along at a speed akin to the dissemination of topless Paris Hilton photographs on the Internet, the playwright's vision stalls.

T.I.C. follows several weeks in the life of a high school student known as the Kid, who winds up living with her father in his San Francisco tenancy-in-common apartment following her mother's sudden death. Bored, isolated, and uncomfortable about living with the gay-porn–surfing middle-ager whose sperm helped to bring about her birth, the Kid turns to her laptop for solace. In addition to spying on her progenitor and the four weirdos who occupy the rest of the building, she chronicles her findings on a blog. The more she learns about the goings-on in her T.I.C., the more certain she becomes of foul play. When one of the neighbors goes missing under mysterious and possibly violent circumstances, the Kid decides it's time to play Sherlock — with hilarious consequences.

It's difficult to imagine a worthier bunch of desperados upon which to base a blog — or a stage comedy, for that matter — than those who populate the Kid's building. Sabra Jones (a fittingly uptight Arwen Anderson) is a needy, single thirtysomething with a sugar addiction and penchant for hitting on unsuitable men. A third-rate rock musician with a death wish, Shye Macarthur Pleasanton Jr. (played with demented self-absorption by Lance Garnder) spends his tortured hours composing dreadful songs and taking his anger out on his neighbors. Hardly ever seen without a joint between her lips, Anne Darragh's Claudia Borealis is an aging hippie who matches a newfound passion for homeownership with a misplaced revolutionary fervor. The Kid's father (portrayed with empathetic quirkiness by Michael Shipley) does weird things with Listerine. Then there's Terrence, a man with a creepy moustache and no last name, who passes the time at his window dressed in nothing but sensible black shoes, white socks, and a trenchcoat. Of Liam Vincent's performance in this role, more later.

Set against James Faerron's versatile scenic design with its frame motif reminiscent at once of a window, camera viewfinder, and computer screen, the play gleefully contrasts notions of what it means to spy and be spied upon in our technologically driven times. Nachtrieb skillfully offsets Terrence's old-fashioned, Rear Window–inspired snooping with the Kid's tech-savvy methods. While he's ogling his neighbors through binoculars, she's rigging up Web cams, uploading covertly shot videos to YouTube, and Googling combinations like "Claudia Borealis Tragedy Curve Ball Pot Smoking Sadness" in an effort to plunder her fellow T.I.C.-dwellers' secrets. Sound designer Sara Huddleston's purposefully intrusive soundscape of random sobs, orgasmic moans, heavy breathing, and ominously ringing phones echoes the fragmented truths the Kid discovers through her dogged detective work.

A backhanded homage to the Web 2.0 generation, the comedy reveals with satirical humor the ease with which people can find out information about each other in our infinitely networked world. Furthermore, T.I.C. explores the ramifications of this lowering of privacy barriers. In this post–Jerry Springer climate, where people admit to murder on TV and blog freely about having terminal cancer, a traditional flasher (or, as he puts it, "humble exhibitionist") like Terrence simply can't compete. "Last week I executed my boldest maneuver, the Ghipetto, flawlessly to a group of Ohioan tourists," oddball Terrence laments in one of Nachtrieb's most vividly written passages. "But their only response was a polite cough and a single digital group photo." That the audience happily sits through a good ten minutes of full-frontal nudity while the less-than-humble albeit weirdly endearing exhibitionist Vincent strides about the stage in the buff is telling: Terrence's trenchcoat-doffing ways can't even ruffle upstanding theater audiences.

Despite its entertainment value and flawless execution, T.I.C. leaves the viewer feeling as frustrated as the archetypal Peeping Tom who falls out of the tree just as the lady in the window is about to remove her bra. Notwithstanding glimmers of profundity, Nachtrieb's extended piece of sketch comedy skims the surface of ideas without truly connecting them. The play feels as if it wants to build to some revelation about our culture of voyeurism. But instead, it largely ends up telling us the obvious, such as the fact that we live in a time of open networks and very few taboos. In short, what this comedy is missing is a knockout punch line.

Still, as a blogger, I personally connected with the play in one crucial way. When the Kid finds out that Terrence has been closely following her blogging activities, the shock of being exposed momentarily punctures the comedy's balloon surface. "You shouldn't be watching me," she tells him. "Should you be watching me?" he retorts. It's in this instant that White's cartoonish teen protagonist — who divides her time, when she's not spying on her neighbors, between rocking out to indie bands and contorting herself into a disgusted knot around her dad — reveals the frailty of the human author behind the blog.



  • Well Queenie,

    I have to say:

    You have this consistently quirky way of wetting our appetites and then telling us not to eat.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of this play Trench-coat in Common, but I shan't see it for it seems to lack your personal stamp of approval. It's as if it is all ultimately a yes or a no - but either way you will make something better of it.

    Good for you + Bad for the makers = What for us?

    Is it just really not worth going out to see, or did it just not meet your high standards? It seems you and Anthony Lane have something in common:

    You both write better when you have a certain disdain for your subject. And so be it.

    And, I suppose, this is all good and well. You protect us from the dangers of human contact. At least if we are going to contact something unhealthy you will let us know if it is worthy of the risk.

    Thank you for keeping the gate.

    Mr. Stick

    ps I wrote this with every stitch of clothing...on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 2, 2009 at 5:26 PM  

  • Go see it, Mr. Stick.
    There's lots that's good about the play, even though I felt it had some shortcomings and wasn't quite up to the standards of Hunter Gatherers...

    By Blogger Unknown, At February 3, 2009 at 7:18 AM  

  • Well, I probably won't go see it but it isn't because of you. I do appreciate your discerning view on work. I wouldn't read you if you were too nice. You have an ideal. A standard. As long as you stick to your guns, your work, ultimately tells us about you. I think you know that.

    I read you because of your earnest yearning to be right. There is something about your approach that is deep and wise yet not just a little naive. What you seem to be going for is exciting. It is at once a silly and noble quest. And why not?

    And there it is.

    Keep it up.

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 3, 2009 at 12:08 PM  

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