“Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart” at HERE Arts Center

Polly Lee (Miss Jacklyn). Background (L-R): Danielle Slavick (Claire), Nicolle Bradford (Caroline) and Erin Maya Darke (Sally). Photo by Rick Ngoc Ho

Last night took me over to HERE Arts Center for Australian-American playwright Lally Katz’s Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart (through December 21;  tickets $25). The latest show by The Production Company, which exists to bring new Australian theatre to the stage, Goodbye New York is a world premiere by a hot Australian playwright, featuring a strong cast and directed by the talented Oliver Butler (of The Debate Society; see our interview here), but in the end, the show disappoints.

Not only does it play like virtually every other high-concept intellectual dramedy (a type that’s about as common these days as memory plays about famous artists), leaving me feeling like I’ve seen this play a half-dozen times already, but it fails to find a theatrical language to deal with its concepts, and on top of that is convoluted and confusing. Ironically, this actually kind of helps, because once you figure out what’s actually happening, you’re disappointed yet again by the fact the playwright has chosen not to engage the more provocative questions her own concept gives raises.

As mentioned, the is built like your standard contemporary well-made play. Call it the playwriting MFA trap: Take a quotidian scenario (in this case, a young woman who travels abroad to a friend’s wedding, where she falls in love with a guy who doesn’t love her), and meld it to a big intellectual conceit (it’s a post-apocalyptic future where New York is a hybrid virtual/actual reality in which the social network avatars of the dead freely interact with the living!). The high-concept part becomes a lens through which to see and understand the part that’s actually about how we all live, while at the same time letting the playwright tackle a Big Subject he or she has something to say about. This is basically every Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play.

Goodbye New York centers on a young woman named Caroline (Nicolle Bradford) from the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury. Listless and disaffected for reasons largely unknown, she jumps at the chance to attend her friend Japan’s (Samantha Sherman) wedding in “MySpace New York.” Japan, by the way, is what’s known in the play as a “suicide.” Some way through, you will finally come to understand that (a) MySpace New York is essentially a virtual reality New York projected onto remains of the real thing by said company, and (b) that by “suicide,” the playwright is being literal.

Lots of people kill themselves in the future, apparently (though why it’s only the suicides that stick around in a virtual reality half-life is beyond me, though MySpace as purgatory is a pretty good one-liner), but live on as their social media personae in mixed-reality cities–like MySpace New York, MySpace Moscow, and Facebook Paris–where the virtual selves of the dead interact with the living. These latter people, known as “avalanche dwellers,” consist of poor, hapless souls incapable of giving up on their lost loved ones. Both the suicides and the people who live in the real world–limited, apparently, to Australia and parts of Western Europe–look down on the avalanche dwellers for choosing not to fully inhabit either world, instead living a shadowy half-life straddling the two.

Caroline goes on vacation in this half-reality, where she falls in love with a suicide, played by Ryan King, named Thornbury (It’s the same name as her town! They have so much in common!), who she will throw herself at for the rest of the play, while his father (Andrew Dawson) tries to get him to leave MySpace NYC before the computer system crashes and wipes the entire virtual-scape, along with all the suicides who haven’t emigrated.

All of which does open up some interesting options to pursue: What is the relationship between our social media identities and our actual selves? What does it mean for huge corporations to increasingly control the information that makes us who we are? What is death in an era in which we’ve already transferred part of our identity to a computer? Who and how do we love or mourn in the era of social media? Hell, it even opens up the possibility of discussing the seemingly endless adolescence New York makes possible.

Unfortunately, these are not the questions that will be addressed within the play. What happens, instead, is that we spend 90 minutes watching Caroline, in completely naive and unbelievable fashion, fall madly in love with Thornbury and give up what little life she has to pursue him, which story is acted out for us as a series of TV-ready short scenes with hard cuts, interspersed with monologues delivered straight to the audience. There’s lots of jokes (including a few too many about dyslexics, illiterates, and gluten-free food) to help the story along.

I don’t intend to sound mean or dismissive, but the truth is that you can tell a play isn’t working out when the ancillary characters–particularly those relegated to comic relief–are more believable than the main ones. Neither Bradford’s nor King’s performances are bad, per se; I just didn’t get the sense that either one could figure out how to navigate their roles, and the result was that their performances seemed affectless, an unintentional aping of Richard Maxwell. In contrast, the more minor the character, the more alive and believable he or she seemed. Sally (Erin Maya Darke) and Claire (Danielle Slavick) appear as a breath of fresh air halfway through, as the flighty owners of a (mostly) gluten-free cafe where Caroline works. Their banter elicits the most honest laughs of the evening.

Miss Jacklyn (Polly Lee), the head of the self-help group for avalanche dwellers, is even more filled out: she’s a middle-aged woman unable, even after two marriages, to get over her high school sweetheart, a poorly aged suicide who–like all the rest of them–is more interested in shallow interactions than in reciprocating love. She may be a but cliche, but she’s at least tragic.

Hell, even Kim Ann (Lucy Walters), a self-absorbed, attention-starved waif, comes off as more real and sympathetic than Caroline. And the reason is simple: We’ve all met self-absorbed waifs with self-destructive streaks, or flighty but idealistic people at a coffeeshop, or even douchebaggy guys who swear too much (here I’m referring to Caroline’s boyfriend Andy, played by Brian Robert Burns, who appears for one killer scene). These are all real, identifiable people. What’s not real or identifiable or sympathetic is a character who falls madly in love with the walking MySpace page of a dead guy she’s never met, and who never once addresses the fact that she’s not actually in love with a real person at all. It’s like Katz aimed for a social networking version of Solaris and instead wrote the early 21st century Mannequin.

And finally, there’s little to the show beyond the text. Valerie Theres Bart’s set is abstract and functional in order to accommodate rapid-fire scene changes, achieved smash-cut-style by Carolyn Wong’s lighting. The content of the play is purely textual, and Katz’s language catches neither the rhythm of real speech nor attempts to convey the way in which language is affected and shaped by digital communication. Consider the following monologue (context is irrelevant):

As I was leaving Myspace New York, Fashion Avenue collapsed into fractured shadows on the street. The Apple Store across from Central Park lit up like a supernova. They’ll be seeing its image in a thousand years on Myspace Mars. The subway curled up with worms in the dirt and fell asleep. Wall Street hollered, ‘Look out below!’ and chuckled the whole crumbling way down. The Rockefeller Plaza flickered twice and then simply faded into the colour of the sky.

This monologue is delivered by Bradford as she stares at the audience, standing up-center, spotlit. There’s no visual, no attempt to represent the experience onstage. The language itself does not capture a sense of her character’s experience, nor does it rise to the level of poetic abstraction, the textualization of memory and experience. It’s just novelistic. Descriptive. It says, rather than shows. It has a voice, but it’s the voice of a narrator, not a character. And that, more than anything, explains why I walked out feeling virtually nothing for the plight of the characters I was supposed to engage with. Quite honestly, I found Andy’s inability to forthrightly express his love for Caroline to be more touching than anything Caroline does. And frankly, the most affecting moment of the play passed as almost an afterthought.

As Caroline tries to flee the city along with the avalanche dwellers who have the strength of character to turn their backs on their false reality, she encounters Sally and Claire. Like the rest of the living, both have been drawn to the city by suicides: in their cases, those of dead siblings. But confronted with the collapse of the illusion, they split the difference–Sally refuses to forsake her sister and chooses to stay. But Claire has decided to go.

“I’m heartbroken to say it,” she tells Caroline, “I am going to leave my brother behind here. If I can leave him, then you can leave Thornbury.”

That simple acknowledge packs more of a wallop than all of Caroline’s monologues combined, if for no other reason than, again, the person who said it is forsaking a lost sibling, whereas the listener is being asked to forsake a MySpace profile of a dead guy she’s never met. That it takes another seven scenes (in the script; one was cut in performance) for Caroline to manage to actually do so says a lot about the Goodbye New York‘s problems.

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