31 January 2014
What is it precisely about social media and the advent of incessant and overbearing forms of constant communication that have led to the breakdown of meaningful long distance relationships? Shouldn’t the ability to maintain interpersonal communications allow two individuals to grow together? Or, is there some truth in the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder? These are just a few of the complex questions addressed in Will Arbery’s We Were Nothing!, being performed in a private residence near Union Square.
We Were Nothing! is, at its core, a simple story about two friends, Shelley (portrayed by Emilie Soffe) and Kelly (portrayed by Elly Smokler), attempting to remain in touch via phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages, G-chat sessions, Skype dates, and e-mails despite the great distance that separates them while they are away at college. And failing. Because, as we all know, life happens. We get busy. We neglect to pick up the phone. We walk away from our computer in the middle of a conversation. We even get tired of Facebook. The play characterizes Shelley’s and Kelly’s “e-relationship” as a child-like game played in an attempt to sustain a childhood friendship that would otherwise end permanently as the two are thrust into adulthood. The problem is that they cease to have shared life experiences, goals and interests. With little else to discuss, their conversations devolve into playful banter and, ironically, one of their most profound communications involves dissecting the lyrics of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” (while wearing costumes, of course). When Shelley is most in need of her friend’s support, Kelly is unreachable. Kelly’s unavailability speaks volumes about the superficial nature of their conversations and the real state of their relationship. It also sets an ominous tone for the friends’ inevitable face-to-face reunion, which is both uncomfortable and heart wrenching.
We Were Nothing! is not only an interesting commentary piece on the state of relationships in our overly “socialized” world, it is a unique and creative work that will undoubtedly resonate with audiences. The majority of the play is presented in a singular style that simulates the various electronic interactions between Shelley and Kelly, and, despite the occasional difficulty in identifying the form of communication being utilized, this unique artistic choice is incredibly effective and welcome.
While the play has numerous strengths, its greatest weakness is the ending. During an emotional exchange between Shelley and Kelly in which Kelly refuses to disclose a secret to Shelley despite Shelley’s pleas that she do so, Kelly slaps her friend. While Elly Smokler’s slap lacks force (thankfully), it comes across as contrived. Moreover, Shelley sits stunned and upset for a minute but appears to just shake it off. It is an uncomfortable exchange that feels out of character for both girls. Furthermore, the dialogue gets a tad confusing at the end of the play. Kelly has a secret that she chooses not to tell Shelley, and Shelley wants her to share the secret – after all, best friends should be able to share anything with one another. However, their back and forth exchange is difficult to follow and Shelley’s tearful monologue that is meant to keep Kelly from leaving her home is almost unintelligible (although the emotional intent is clear).
Elly Smokler and Emilie Soffe do admirable jobs portraying Kelly and Shelley, respectively. Soffe and Smokler are convincing longtime friends and old playmates – they genuinely appear to have fun working together. Smokler’s Kelly is overly playful in her interactions with Shelley, and it is this playfulness that makes Kelly appear flippant about maintaining a relationship with Shelley. It’s an acting choice that Smokler employs to great effect given the somber ending of the play. Soffe demonstrates great emotional depth in her portrayal of Shelley. For example, after the two girls engage in a Facebook “Like” spree on each other’s pages that slowly turns into a text and e-mail conversation, Kelly finds that she has numerous missed calls from Shelley and a desperate voicemail from her forlorn friend. This sequence of scenes is very well staged, and Soffe does a brilliant job of moving emotionally from one e-communication scene to the next.
This review also gives me the perfect opportunity to endorse crowdfunding campaigns. I am an enthusiastic crowdfunding supporter and have backed numerous projects through both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. So, it is unsurprising that two weeks before I attended the press performance of We Were Nothing! I stumbled across the Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the show. If you know anything about crowdfunding, you probably understand that people donate money to causes, artistic efforts, and business ventures through social platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Although the occasional celebrity will throw a project up on these platforms, the vast majority of the projects on these websites are the creative visions of groups and individuals who do not otherwise have easy access to seed or investment money. Backers and funders are donors who are not investing in the hope of getting monetary return – they are investing in our communities and culture in the hopes of getting a social return. 86 donors ensured that We Were Nothing! would become part of the NYC theatre arts scene this year, and that is pretty amazing.
It’s good that shows like We Were Nothing! find funding because, ultimately, Arbery’s play exposes the emotional shortcomings of the social media and gadget-driven relationships to which many of us are a part, and his startlingly somber piece may have you wondering whether you too have someone in your phone contact list who is “just somebody that [you] used to know.”
We Were Nothing! runs through February 9 at private loft near Union Square, and the exact address is released to ticket holders. Tickets are available here.