Suppose you’re a fan of Dana Delany, the charming, talented actress known for her work on “Desperate Housewives” and “China Beach.”
Now suppose you can see Delany in person, telling a weird story from her own life. Not a fish story, but a catfish story.
And say that story is told with the help of “Glee” star Dot-Marie Jones, along with inventive, hyperrealistic sets by Dane Laffrey and moody lighting by Jen Schriever.
It makes for a diverting night out.
But is “Highway Patrol” a theatrical “thriller,” as its publicity claims? No.
There’s no suspense—if you know social media, you can guess what’s coming. The actors don’t engage with each other as humans do in real life. They deliver their mostly pedestrian lines out to the audience instead of to each other. There’s little action, other than Delany drinking wine and going to bed. There are no belly laughs and no tears, outside of Delany’s. I left the theater feeling thoughtful, but oddly flat, as one does after a night scrolling through social media instead of reading a good book.
Created by Delany, Laffrey, playwright Jen Silverman and director Mike Donahue, the play is based on a real incident and uses real tweets and messages. While she was shooting “Body of Proof” in 2011, ABC told Delany to go on Twitter to help with promotion. Delany begins corresponding, first by Twitter, then email, with “Cam,” an alarmingly sick little boy. It became a round-the-clock conversation, with Delany also communicating with the boy’s “Nan” (Jones).
Cam (Thomas Murphy Molony) is cute and preternaturally mature, and Delany gets sucked into his story, especially when he starts telling her about her own family members who have either died or fallen out of touch. Since she’s working sixteen-hour days and coming home alone to cold food and rosé, the boy becomes an important human connection for Delany. She cares about him.
But as is often the case with social media, the story is not what it seems.
“Highway Patrol” is staged in a split-screen format, with Delany in her dressing room or kitchen, while the boy and other characters (Jones) are in the other half of the stage. Sometimes, Cam joins Delany in her space, but they don’t touch. The time of each message is projected in white lettering on a black background behind the action (6am, etc.), as are the dates, delivered with a dollop of sinister music and a “whomp” sound which makes them seem more ominous than they are.
Molony plays Cam in the grating, precocious style of a nineties sitcom kid, which is appropriate to the material. His performance shades into creepiness by the end of the first act, which shows good range—Molony is going places. And Jones is both sinister and awkwardly touching.
“Highway Patrol” is good at depicting the odd give-and-take of email and social media—with one party urgently messaging without knowing when or if the other party will respond, and the difficulty in interpreting tone. It raises an interesting question—can you have a true, loving communion with someone you never meet in real life, or “IRL”? The answer is probably not. As more of our relationships go into cyberspace, we are getting into trouble as a species.
The “Highway Patrol” story probably belongs in a venue other than live theater—a place for big emotions and gestures, which this material lacks. The social media world is a “cool” place (to use Marshall McLuhan’s term)—you have to fill in the details. The story might work better in a cooler medium, like television.