Octet, a new musical by Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) explores the newest of addictions: technology. Facebook, Facetime, Twitter, Internet porn, Tinder, etc. have engulfed the lives of this play’s characters.
Malloy, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, has taken a novel approach, staging Octet as if it were a 12-step program in which all the members of the group express their inner thoughts through a cappella singing all the while following the precepts of an AA or OA meeting. Director Annie Tippe has taken this sophisticated mass of brilliance and shaped it around the sensational talents of a small cast which performs miracles of acting and singing.
The Friends of Saul, named after its mysterious, never-seen founder is led by Paula (Starr Busby, convincing as the calm center of a hurricane of neuroses). As she leads the group in the Eight Principles, a new-agey version of the 12 steps, a new member, Velma (Kuhoo Verma, childlike and charming) nervously enters completing the required eight.
As the meeting rolls on in the incredibly evocative and detailed church basement set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta (who even left the remnants of a Bingo game), each participant gets to confess his obsession via a series of musical set pieces, all performed, as mentioned above, without musical accompaniment.
First, Jessica (Margot Seibert) bemoans being shamed on the Internet and hypnotized into following every personal assault as the others urge her to “Refresh, Refresh, Refresh,” as they form a menacing crowd around her. Henry (Alex Gibson) can’t get enough of the candy themed games, imagining himself submerged in the sweet stuff as it cascades over him.
Paula, herself, confesses a marriage ruled at night by the light of computer screens rather than human interaction. Karly (Kim Blanck) tells of deeply emotionally frustrating tales of Tinder connections in tandem with Ed (Adam Bashian), who appears to be the sole gay member whose own experiences with porn parallel hers.
A “Fugue State” punctuates the meeting with overlapping rhythmic chanting of computer jargon, finally deteriorating into singing nothing but personality-draining numbers.
Marvin (J.D. Mollison), a scientist, is overwhelmed by the fuzzier and fuzzier line between reality, Artificial Intelligence and total immersion in the vast clouds of technological crap, while Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) is disdainful of the damage of trolling the Internet which he feels has gotten out of control.
Newbie Velma is the last, but not least, to reveal her weakness which is her inability to end a totally involving relationship with someone she met on the Internet with whom she found much needed rapport, a rapport that has turned pathological.
The contributions of Malloy and Tippe are polished by the exemplary costumes of Brenda Abbandandolo and the extraordinary mood-enhancing lighting of Christopher Bowser.
This is an important jewel of a show that deeply personalizes the twists and turns of contemporary life which is helped and hurt in equal proportion by technology.
Octet (extended through June 30, 2019)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission