Kingdom Come at Roundabout Underground + me + Internet friendships, part 1
[spoilers for Kingdom Come] This is a two parter; this part is about the play. The second part will be about viewing the play in context of my own online experiences.
It’s been several weeks, but I did want to put down something down about this play, also at the Laura Pels Theater, which I saw on the evening of November 6th and which closed on December 18th. I decided to go because Roundabout sent me an email, because I was going to be there anyway, because the ticket was only $25, and because the theme of the play touches on a central point of contemporary fandom — the matter of how we (our identities) and our friendships and relationships develop with people we don’t know and might never meet otherwise. The play makes this theme about technology, but it wouldn’t have to be. I had my first lengthy exchange with a person I did not know using a computer in the summer of 1988 (via a BBS), but I’d had penpals since I was in fourth grade, when my school facilitated a penpal exchange between me and a girl in Easton, Pennsylvania (talk about culture shock) that continued until I was fifteen or so. Professionally, I’d always corresponded with people I knew I’d never meet. The real change came for me not due to technology, but with fandom, primarily due to pseudonymity. I’ve never been deceived about romantic feelings due to someone using a false identity, nor I have I tried to orchestrate such a deception. I don’t seek romance online, and I use my social media, both real-life and fandom-life accounts, in very intentional ways. But I’ve witnessed and experienced myself some of the positive and negative aspects of online disinhibition described by Roundabout in ways I wouldn’t have without fandom. As the Roundabout creative director noted when explaining why they chose the play, it’s relevant.
As a response to a “hot topic,” I appreciated this play, although the play is more than that and I liked it on other levels as well. It was staged in the very intimate “Underground” Black Box Theatre setting, which is simply a large room, divided half and half into staging area and audience seating (I think 62 seats — which are simply chairs). Here’s more about the structure of the set, which is centered on Samantha’s room with other scenes taking place mostly to the side. There’s a certain paradox to watching a play about people whose decisive communications take place virtually in such proximity to the actors, but it reminded me again why I love theater — the fellow fan with whom I attended and I sat in the front row, about six feet away from the action, and it made me feel like they were acting the play out just for me.
In the play, Samantha (Carmen M. Herlihy in a fat suit) weighs 600 pounds. She spends most of her time at home in bed, in Carson City, Nevada. Samantha’s home care assistant, Delores (Socorro Santiago), feels genuine affection for her, providing motherly support that she doesn’t get from her own mother, as well as entertainment, but also treating her a bit like a pet. We see how limited Samantha’s life has become when she has to struggle across the room to put her hands on a misplaced remote control, but we also see how she uses her situation to avoid certain problems — something not uncommon among chronically ill people, who may feel so trapped by their circumstances that they don’t really know how to confront the apparently insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of change their lives and who have a harder time concealing the active avoidance for which the rest of us regularly excuse ourselves.
Elsewhere in Carson City, Layne (Crystal Finn), a lanky woman with stringy hair, the kind of person to whom the descriptor “you could be really pretty if you tried” definitely applies, has a customer service-type office job that stresses her. She also suffers from severe, if unspecified, anxiety. She’s one of those people spooked by every warning in Consumer Reports. She hasn’t driven in years. She’s engaging in affirmations to shut down her inner demons under her desk when her hyper-confident coworker, Suz (Stephanie Styles — about whose performance “bombshell” is simply the only appropriate word) discovers her and suggests that she should date online. Layne creates an online persona called “Courtney,” an international-route flight attendant, and populates it with a picture of someone else. “Courtney” meets Samantha on the same dating site, but as “Dom” — an identity Samantha appropriates from Delores’ son, a restaurant worker and wannabe actor in Los Angeles with whom she went to high school. The real Dom (Alex Hernandez — another genius casting decision) occasionally visits Carson City and helps Delores with Samantha — and we see a poignant moment every fat girl is familiar with, where Dom somewhat abusively kisses Samantha and both realize just what an obstacle her body is. It’s a particularly well-written, well-played moment.
Suz warns Layne that the seemingly perfect “Dom” is probably a middle schooler, but the fake identity stands up to initial probing, as does “Courtney.” Online, the two personas quickly become friends and discover shared loves, particularly their favorite movie. As things develop, however, Samantha / “Dom” demands another picture from “Courtney,” and in a rush, Layne picks one off the web that is obviously of a different person than her original photo. Samantha / “Dom” cuts off contact in anger and disappointment, which shocks the emotionally labile Layne so much that she rents a car and drives to Los Angeles to apologize. There, she tracks down and meets the real Dom, who is mystified until he realizes that someone has been pretending to be him. But they (improbably) fall in love (this is the only contrived moment in the plot, functioning like an emotional deus ex machina), and Dom brings Layne home to meet his mother. The real Dom seems to have positive effects on the real Layne, mostly because he forces her to do things the real Layne never would have done (drive to Los Angeles, engage in skilled, enthusiastic Latin dancing). But Samantha knows what’s happened, of course, and when a conversation between the three reveals the favorite movie, the jig is up — apparently it’s “The American President,” a famous romance, but I was unfamiliar with it, so that added nothing to the play for me — and Layne realizes that Samantha was the fake “Dom.”
In interest of not revealing the ending, most reviews of the play don’t discuss this moment, and it’s unfortunate, because the angry explosions and openly hurt feelings one might expect don’t happen here. As the light bulb goes off in Layne’s head, Dom is complaining (justifiably) about the deception to Samantha and Delores, but Layne pauses uncomfortably before she says that she can understand why it happened. And the play ends with the two resuming their online contact — because even with the real circumstances revealed, they miss each other. And while Layne apparently loves Dom, she also misses “Dom.” As I’ll detail later, this is the point at which the play reached its highest verisimilitude for me.
Aside from the topicality of the play and the intimacy of the theater, there were a lot of things to like about this production. The performances were excellent — and I think even more than that, Layne, Samantha and (to a slightly lesser extent) Dom were all characters I recognize — written and played in convincing ways. Samantha’s realism / sarcasm about her situation is right on point and unlike some of the tv shows that discuss the same themes as the play, the play doesn’t condescend to its characters in the least or treat them voyeuristically. I liked the format for staging the online conversations / chats, although the New York Times reviewer, in a very superficial review, apparently found it boring — the reviewer seems to have concluded that the only important part of those exchanges was their text, and thus not to have noticed that the text projection itself changes as the conversations change.
The play is really lean (1:40, no intermission), so it touches on everything it refers to — the pain of embodiment, the problems of the fat girl, issues around anxiety and insecurity, the nature of online identity and online disinhibition, the problem of why people engage in catfishing, the nature of the attraction between Samantha and Layne — lightly at most. (Here’s some more information on what Jenny Rachel Weiner, the playwright, thought the play was about.) The biggest unanswered questions for me: why are Samantha and Layne the ways they are? Why does Samantha choose a male persona? And why isn’t the resulting same-sex implication somewhat more troubling to the characters? But it’s also clearly a comedy, so I didn’t find that hugely problematic, even if I would have appreciated more (about this more later). The subtlety (and perhaps, optimism) of the ending makes it clear that it’s not just a mash-up of Catfish and My 600-lb Life.
There are two matters, though, that I do think deserved more thought. The first was the use of the fat suit. The point for the designers seems primarily to have been creating one that looks realistic (in the process of building it, they realized that a 5′ 2″ person can’t really weigh 600 pounds and still have a visible head) and won’t bake the actor (it apparently had a fan in it). I get that there probably aren’t a lot of 600-lb actors available and that if they were, they wouldn’t be insurable. Verisimilitude wasn’t so much the issue for me, though. Despite the designers’ efforts, it’s impossible to create a fat suit that looks like actual fat and even if it were, extremely fat people almost inevitably end up being comical or provoking disgust or moralistic reactions in their audiences. (Aside: The entire purpose of My 600-lb Life really seems to be to shame the dangerously ill subjects of the drama, then to excuse their shame by revealing deep psychological trauma in their lives that are said to be causing them to be fat, and covertly to reassure the audience that their own extra thirty or fifty pounds aren’t that bad — with a generous piece of class condescension thrown in, because the fat as portrayed on this show are disproportionately poor and uneducated, and shown repeatedly to be deluding themselves about their condition.)
The play tries to avoid the difficulty of the comical or morally deficient fat person by putting Samantha on stage from the moment the audience enters the theater, so that we don’t see her entrance. Moreover, Herlihy worked effectively against this problem and in the one part of the play where she does actually move, she effectively communicated not just the physical pain, but also the emotional stress, of moving a body that large. But I would argue that audiences just can’t see that much weight without getting judgmental (as this review, where the author calls Herlihy’s character “a female elephant” and a “male elephant,” demonstrates — note to that reviewer in case she sees this — “the elephant in the room” is different from “a white elephant.” If you’re going to dehumanize fat people for no particular reason other than that you find the language provocative, you should at least get your idiom straight. Neither expressions is actually applicable here; you just wanted to have fun calling the character “an elephant”). I don’t know what the solution is, but this variant didn’t really work for me, not least because we don’t have enough backstory on Samantha to know why she is fat, and regular audiences always, always assume that being fat is the fat person’s fault and is something they could correct if only they would behave correctly. Everything about this portrayal puts Samantha one down over Layne, whose anxieties even at their worst are more sweetly comical than life-threatening. Anxiety keeps many people house-bound, but we don’t see it here.
One possibility might like in a deeper contemplation of what “being a fat person” means in the life of the fat person herself. I don’t know if Weiner’s object was to create someone who we would automatically believe was incapable of being the object of real-life romantic love or of seeking it out for herself as herself, or to make Layne relationship-capable with Dom while Samantha is not, but the real problem for most fat people lies not so much in their actual weight but in how they see themselves. We see in real life all the time that even extremely fat people find love. In short, this character would not have had to weigh 600 pounds to get what I understand to be Weiner’s point across. Weiner’s remarks about the play suggest that she sees a contrast between Samantha (“trapped in her body”) and Layne (“trapped in her mind”), but I don’t buy that. A fat person is often also trapped in her mind — and that’s part of why online communication is such a desirable option for the less conventionally physically attractive people of the world. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” or so the saying goes, but the opposite is also true in real life: You’re only a dog if you believe you’re a dog. 600 pounds makes it harder — I would never deny that — but it’s not impossible for even very fat people to be real people.
The second matter that gave me pause was the way that the scenes where Samantha and Layne were chatting on OK Cupid were played. Specifically, if I recall correctly, each character spoke her own lines as they appeared on the projections of their laptop screens. I don’t believe this is actually the whole story of goes on in Internet communications, though — and it points at a more fundamental cognitive oversimplification within the play. Kingdom Come seems to be saying that people become intense friends on the Internet more quickly because they can abandon the troublesome aspects of their identities (fat, anxiety, what have you — race, diction, gender, class), those things that might be obstacles to other people, and explore their “ideal” selves (which are somehow constructed independently of all of those markers — a highly problematic proposition). I don’t question that this is one thing that happens in virtual interactions, and it is an interesting question (that the play could have explored further — it had time): why people might feel their most “real” or “genuine” when they are lying their asses off to each other. Why is it, if we really want to be a certain kind of person, we choose to do that discursively rather than in our actual lives? Is it only because it’s easier, or is it because there is actual causality in a real life that is absent from an online persona? (Because the play avoids giving us the backstories, we can’t answer this question.)
But although that sort of “self-fashioning” (or curation of identity, as Weiner terms it) and performance of the ideal self certainly occurs in virtual interactions, it’s not the whole story. In other words, only one piece of Samantha and Laney’s interaction involves the apparent discovery of so many commonalities between their ideal selves. It’s that, in the world of online communication, and particularly when we have no knowledge of the RL person we’re speaking with, we filter every communication through our own brain. We are constructing not only ourselves, but also our interlocutor. This is why long-distance relationships via various media are so fraught, because we are speaking not only with the other person as he is, but also with the person as we hear him in our mind. It seems this effect is particularly true in chat, where we don’t hear the other person’s voice or see him at all. We can add whatever valence to the words on the screen that we like. In their online interactions, Layne and Samantha create the ideal “other” just as they create ideal “selves,” and they do it in real time. I think this is the main reason why online relationships are so intense and so compelling, and why I feel it so much more intensely when I have a “breakup” with an online friend — because the “other” was also someone I created (albeit with the pieces that they supplied) so that I could love them (not unlike a tulpa, if you’re trying to relate my analysis of this play to my other writing). Layne and Samantha are not only trapped in their own minds — they’ve trapped their conceptions of each other in their minds as well.
In other words, it might have made sense to have Layne speak Samantha’s typed lines and vice versa. This probably would have confused the hell out of the audience. But I think it’s part of what goes on in relationships like this (and which we don’t see in the play).
This post will continue in a bit as I ponder the “Internet friendships” question that the play raised for me personally.
Postscript: Given the subject matter and the way that the characters’ feelings in the play are left relatively near the service, this would seem like a particularly good play for an educational program involving teenagers. Here’s a description of how the play was used as a way to explore the themes of loneliness, writing monologues, and being a female playwright. Roundabout also specifically incorporated the deception aspects of this play into teaching about the theme of restorative justice: Part I and Part II and how it worked out (Part III).