I loved this short story when the New Yorker ran it in 2003, in part because it seemed so un-New Yorkerish—supremely modern and anti-literary, told from the point of view of a teenager fully immersed in pop culture. Hip, satiric and heartbreaking, it’s science fiction of the best sort—a link between contemporary touchstones (soda, video games, brand-name clothing; we are what we consume) and legitimate questions about how we think and what matters most.
George Saunders is the author, and he created a hilariously skewed syntax for this stylized world of perpetual focus groups peopled by teenage tastemakers who live together in an office park somewhere, existing only to assess the latest in material goods. These kids feel special because they know no other way to feel. Drugged and pandered to, they are dressed in the coolest threads, their brains filled with images and text from a bazillion commercials. Slowly—and then very quickly—the status quo collapses for a couple named Jon and Carolyn, who envision leaving this place forever.
Adapting the story for the stage (in a production for Collaboraction), director Seth Bockley adheres to Saunders’ strange-seeming dialogue and high-concept narrative. Saunders is fascinated with the limits of communication and what constitutes an actual experience. When we reference music lyrics and movie moments and advertising images, is it merely another way to express emotions—or a substitute for original, individual thought? Ultimately, words can have only so much meaning—actions seal the deal, especially where love is concerned.
Bockley has made small changes to the original, but the bulk of it remains the same, including the hilarious passage that opens the story, with Jon talking about the sex-ed video that changed everything. “Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coordinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of ‘It’s Yours to Do with What you Like!’ in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!”
That kind of thing tends to read better on the page. Spoken aloud it can sound strenuous and arch, and the effort to create an alternate reality sometimes robs the words of their doofy lyricism. It’s the only serious drawback of the adaptation—reading the story is a more satisfying experience, but the play should be taken on its own terms, and there is a lot here to like, especially Lucas Neff’s performance as Jon, the good-looking preppy surfer dude. His eyes are blank because Jon’s inner life is limited; Neff believably inhabits the skin of a human, but the soul of something else—a proto-human. Bockley has the right instincts when it comes to the show’s comedic moments, and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design (corporate melodic doodles) and Mike Tutaj’s videos (advert flashes that simulate sensory overload) help establish the plasticy aesthetic.
Jon and his fellow assessors are overseen by a staff of middle-manager types, forever clutching coffee mugs like Lumbergh in “Office Space.” Guy Massey plays the supervisor who begins to question their tactics and he is terrific as the only employee who wonders if it’s all worth it. Kelly O’Sullivan is Carolyn, the girl with more backbone than anyone expected, and she brings a grounded intensity to the role. When you catch a glimpse of her through the back doors of the theater—Bockley borrows a trick from Mary Zimmerman, literally bringing the outside in—suddenly the show sheds its intentional artificiality and offers something real and concrete. (Nina Metz)
At the Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., 312-226-9633 or www.collaboraction.org. Thur-Sat 8p, Sun 7p. $15-$25. Through Dec. 20.