The technology of vanity is developing so quickly that Now You See Me, the new play by Neal Bell in its premiere at Manbites Dog Theater, is almost a period piece already. The play imagines what would happen if a terminal cancer patient was the star of a reality TV show that would chronicle her own decay and death.
We're introduced to such a woman, Claire (Rachel Klem), who is growing increasingly resentful at the intrusions of her producers (Chris Burner and Carl Martin). They've been manipulating her "script" so heavily —even introducing themselves into it in the most intimate and dangerous of ways—that she is now bristling. She also wearies of the 24-hour presence of cameras, which are often hidden.
We all like to imagine ourselves asserting our unmediated selves against the corrupting forces of media, but that's an old-fashioned stance. These days, reality TV is a staple of entertainment, and it seems pretty obvious that those who participate on such shows revel in the chance to appear as scrutinized celebrities in tidily scripted, polished-up versions of their messy and less lustrous "real" lives (we even use some of the shows to become actual celebrities). The notion that we each have some sanctum sanctorum where our organic and true identity lives has been fading for a long, long time; if the speed of that fade seems lately to be increasing, perhaps it's because we no longer even seem to want to think of our "selves" as detachable from our projections of them—or at the very least, we've turned our selves inside out, and we comfortably divulge both our most trivial domestic acts and our deepest fears, needs and desires to people we barely know online and wouldn't recognize on the street. It's called updating your Facebook status. Now You See Me—and you always will.
The play may be old-fashioned, but it's crammed with intriguing ideas, dramatic and otherwise (perhaps a bit too many for its 75 minutes; it's a bit jumbled), such as the suggestion that watching people die is a kind of pornography. Among the liveliest inventions is Bell's plainly deliberate use of stock television-show dialogue for his characters, echoed here and there by actual TV programs seen in fragments on one of two onstage screens. Now You See Me comes on like a sitcom—it very nearly is a sitcom, a critique of the thing by nearly being it—and implicitly asks us whether reality shows aren't actually sitcoms themselves, a cheapening of everyone involved, including the viewer.
Director Jody McAuliffe, taking Bell's lead, has her actors perform like sitcom characters. (The play is surprisingly jocular given its subject matter.) She discourages us from sympathizing with them and sometimes arranges them in angular patterns atop designer Sonya Leigh Drum's grid-painted floor, punctuated here and there with big dots attached to lines, as though the actors are to move to the dots like screen performers to their marks. Behind the actors on a larger screen we see their scenes simulcast in soap-opera close-up, thanks to a camerawoman (Jennifer Evans) recording downstage right. "Would you look at me or the image?" Claire asks us, daring us not to gaze at her face looming on the big TV that literally upstages her.
The overall effect is of heavy mediation: frames within frames, faces behind faces, black boxes in a black box. There is an "Actress" (J Evarts) who sometimes plays Claire's television—with which Claire has conversations—and sometimes plays Claire herself, plus a host of other roles. There is the deliberate distancing effect of having us watch a play—from which we're constantly distracted by clips from TV shows—about the making of a reality show about a "real" person's life. It's a reminder that we're really watching an actress playing that character, just as we all do when we go home and update our Facebook statuses.