Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
With that premise, there are merely a few hours of existence remaining as Jeffrey Lo's play Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid opens, now in its second production at Pear Theatre after being commissioned in 2016 by Ohlone College's Theatre and Dance Department. All around the multi-layered, wood skeleton stage (designed by Paulino Deleal), people blankly stare at their lit phone screens, desperately setting up new accounts on OkCupid under such names as "GregJustGreg," "AreYouMyMother," and "HelpAVirgin." With initial messages such as "Just in case you are out there, I'm looking for a friend" and "I'm not really looking for anything serious," there appears to be many last-attempts to connect to someonemaybe anyonein these few, waning hours. And as time passes, some messages become more urgent: "Hope to hear from you soon ... midnight is close."
Jeffrey Lo's premise is on the surface intriguing, and it certainly opens up the question of what would any of us do if we knew that not only we but everyone one else around us had only a few hours left to live. Would we rush to stand in line for a designer, twenty-dollar cup of coffee (one in which we had first to be interviewed by the barista about our lives)? Would we want to eat that last hamburger (one maybe a foot tall) or get that tattoo we always had meant to get? Maybe we would finally have the nerve to participate in a poetry slam, sharing our haiku about a hippopotamus. Or would we just want to sit in our bedroom and chat online via typed messages with a stranger who is fast becoming a friend? These are just some of the options we watch this cast of ten choose as the rapid sequence of many solo and shared scenes flicker past us as the night proceeds and the hours count down.
Unfortunately, the premise begins to wear thin during the two hours (including intermission) it takes for us finally to reach the bewitching hour of midnight. The often bizarre parade of characters begins to look a lot alike, with most having little to say that is compelling overall. Hearing more than once the rabid-acting prophet Alfred Winters (Keith Larson) foam at the mouth with his "No one would listen to me" becomes old fast. Watching that waiting line at "Black," the coffee shop, or listening to a series of nonsense poems at "8thAve Coffee" becomes annoyingly repetitious, as do lots of silhouetted people on their phones with yet another username and initial message answering questions about themselves. Time spent watching the final filming of a TV talk show, "Tonight with Sage Cruz," with a psychologist analyzing what is happening (and later where of course the Prophet eventually makes yet another appearance) is just one of several parts of the relatively young script where some editing might still occur.
But on the other hand, the script does become more interesting as we meet and begin to know two couples who connectfirst virtually and then face-to-face. In both cases, the pairs realize what one of them asserts early on, "Before we learn how to die, we have to learn how to live." Their journeys of learning what it means to let go of past, self-induced restrictions and boundaries and to open one's self to living in the presence of another person is the heart of Jeffrey Lo's script and perhaps is where the play should focus more.
Samantha Ricci, tag name WarriorsGirl30, is one of the people who up front asserts she only wants to sit at home and chat with someone online. She finds a kindred spirit in MsChanandlerBong (Michael Weiland), whose patience is almost as angelic as his calm, smiling personality as the minutes and hours tick by with his new friend, who is on and off again wanting to converse. The traverse of their developing friendship is a calm, quiet, and welcome sideshow to the more frenetic scenes that we watch on other parts of the stage, with both actors providing characters we want to cheer on and hope that they do find a way to cuddle on a couch and watch a favorite movie before the final sign-off of the world.
Caitlyn (Michelle Skinner), who has already lost her entire family the night prior, is extremely reserved and almost paralyzed except for her twitching feet as she stares at the phone in front of her. Barely whispering to us her typed messages, she hesitates but continues conversations with a guy she will eventually learn is named Ben, leading to a decision to actually meet in person. As Ben, Tasi Alabastro (the performance's shining star) is a like a jumping bean, finding it difficult to sit still for more than a few seconds as he eagerly chats with his new friend. When they do meet, his exuberance for life and a few final adventures (coffee, hamburger, tattoo) are almost overwhelming for a still-suspecting, clearly distrusting Caitlyn; but his heart, humor, and sense of inbred honesty begin to open her up to new possibilities for life, even as the remaining bits of that life are winding down. Their developing relationshipwith the normal ups and downs that usually occur over weeks and months happening within a couple of hoursis the important core of the play, a core crying for more development after a healthy dose of the editor's pen on other parts of the script.
As director, Michael Champlin does a yeoman's job in moving the play at a fairly fast clip through a myriad of scenes (many simply one person highlighted as another OkCupid introduction is made), but even with that effort and skill, there are times when the play seems to bog down with side trips that lead nowhere. When we do return to the main stories of our two couples, the director ably sharpens focus, enhances sweet bits of humor, and provides a spotlight for interactions that carry much more purpose than a lot of the banter surrounding them. It is during those moments that Jeffery Lo's Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid and this Pear Theatre production pulls us in and holds our true attention.
Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, through February 17, 2019, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.