When the audience enters the theater for In Corpo, the new musical by Ben Beckley (book) and Nate Weida (book and music), they are greeted by the sound of waves crashing against rocks and a voice-over imploring them to “enjoy our filtered air.” This gives a sense of what to expect from the show, an electronic meditation on the soullessness of corporate living.
The set (by Nic Benacerraf) consists of what appear to be (but clearly aren’t) waves, occupied by four work pods and a four piece all electronic band. (Even the drums are synths.) It’s vaguely futuristic, something that is undercut by the appearance of an analogue telephone receiver and the sound of a dial tone, something that most of the young cast has probably never heard.
Press materials promise a work that is inspired by Kafka’s The Castle and Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Both are name checked – the lead character is called K, played by a clear-voiced Zoe Siegel, and there is even a Bartleby (Austin Owens Kelly, doing triple duty on synthesizer and later acoustic guitar) who says “I prefer not to” very often – but In Corpo also owes something to Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum with its depiction of bureaucracy gone mad.
Of course, not even Havel could have envisioned the tyranny of the complex password, something In Corpo uses to excellent comic effect. The show is at its best when it satirizes things that everyone has to deal with, such as passwords and inane tasks.
What the drones of Corpo actually do is unclear. They “process packets.” There is a plot, sort of. The show begins with K, dressed in winter clothes (because the outside world is filled with snow, we eventually discover), on her way to Corpo to consult on something. She was asked to come by her estranged father, Tittorelli (played by co-author Beckley, who looks much older than the rest of the cast); we later learn that he has only communicated with her four times in 13 years. We then shift to Corpo and witness its baffling inner workings. This is where most of the humor comes from: workers are rewarded with coffee tablets and “flavored mists”, and there is an amusingly calisthenic dance number called “Movement Mandatory” (choreographed by lisa nevada).
Weida’s music often suggests the Pet Shop Boys on a budget, with occasional hints of Laurie Anderson (the beginning of “Unplug My Body”), The Doobie Brothers (nice harmonies in “Work Loop”) and Devo (“Coffee Tablets” and “Watch Me Work”, performed by the Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-from-hell duo of Offyago and Waitasec, energetically played by Wesley Zurick and Monica Ho, respectively). The songs are all hyper-specific to the scenes; you won’t find a standalone number like “Getting To Know You” or “Send In The Clowns” here.
Director and NYTW Usual Suspect Jess Chayes keeps things moving, and the confusion is probably due to a script that could perhaps do with another draft. K is the only one with a real backstory, and when the dead Tittorelli is suddenly alive it’s not clear why or how. And while it’s fun conceptually to end with an all-unplugged number, it somewhat undercuts the electronica of the last two hours. Where Havel, Kafka and Melville comment on the strangeness of modern life, Beckley and Weida are too often hung up on trying to create a vibe. That said, it’s interesting to see a show so committed to using electronic music and the producers are to be commended for showcasing young talent (the cast is about half Equity and are all solid in their roles). Coffee tablets and flavored mists all around.
In Corpo (through July 8, 2023)
The Assembly in association with Dutch Kills Theater Company
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.bfany.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission