+1, or, The Bearable Delightedness of Being Controlled
By Scott Burke
At the Yellow Sign Theatre through Feb. 23
The misanthropic French novelist Michel Houellebecq makes the case that the sexual revolution, like most revolutions, was terrible for the average person. Sure, it was great for those attractive folks, but the average schlub-the sexual proletariat, so to speak-ended up more miserable than ever, masturbating to videos of the more desirable class of people getting it on. Those who could get laid in the first place got laid more; those who couldn't ended up even lonelier.
Scott Burke's new play, +1, or, the bearable delightedness of being controlled, at the Yellow Sign Theatre, takes this insight and pushes it to its dystopian limit. What if one truly applied a Communist-leaning economic logic to relationships and the state (through the Human Resources Department) took control of the means of reproduction, ensuring some level of erotic equality for all?
Burke's play does precisely this, creating a world where economic principles are applied to romance and terms currently used in economics are applied to relationships: A "recession" is a period without making "porno" (what we call sex), and "flipping" describes upgrading partners rather than houses. It's all quite clever but wouldn't go very far if Burke weren't able to place convincing characters in this self-consistent version of the future.
The play opens with a scene with two members of Human Resources, the last vestiges of government, made up entirely of homosexuals whose responsibility-since they don't procreate-is to manage the relationships of those who do. Director Raahmgut (Benjie Loveless) and Representative Sirgg (Dave K) play their parts with comic flare, sharing a brief bit of dialogue to help us enter the world of the play.
One doesn't want to overdo exegesis and slow down the action in a play like this, but +1 could have used a bit more set-up. Burke produced a three-page "neo-sincerity" dictionary to help the actors understand this brave new world. It could have been profitably shared with the audience while they were waiting for the show to start (especially since Yellow Sign has a super-cool hologram machine-but more on that later). The lingo is funny enough by itself and a little familiarity would help the audience get the joke and give them something other than their phones to look at while waiting around-especially since we don't have Direct yet (a recurring joke in the play about the latest direct-feed virtual reality).
When the Human Resources employees exit, we find ourselves immersed in the lives of Matheu (Jack Sossman) and Mish (Sarah Jacklin). Despite the futuristic patina of their dialogue, their relationship problems are familiar from any romantic comedy: He's not ready to commit. These standard-fare problems, however, take on a heightened sense of importance because the quality of a unit's relationship is the source of wealth and social status.
"Enjoying self?" Mish asks Matheu. "I'm glad someone is! There is a progression, I've been waiting, but I'm not fulfilled. I'm left alone while our friends Tren and Moorgon, they're in fourth tier. They're filling their den with increase. They're busy procreating while we're nocreating."
This is where they get in trouble with the authorities. Mish has had enough and she splits. Tren (Kris Hanrahan) and Moorgon (Mike Jancz)-the couple of whom she is jealous-show up at the door and start arguing about Matheu and Mish. This brings out Human Resources, who take Matheu in for questioning as an "interrupter"-a "cock-blocker," as we pre-neo-sincerity folks may say.
Throughout, Sossman does an excellent job using his face to express Matheu's bafflement. This is especially helpful in allowing the viewer to identify with this world. For while +1 is a satire of our own world, full of dating sites for people who can't stand to be alone-it also turns the individualistic elements of our society, which focus on self-fulfillment, on their head. After Matheu's discussion with Human Resources fails, he is sent to the Voice (Craig Coletta), who appears via the hologram machine the company built out of an old flat-screen TV. The Voice hypnotizes Matheu so he comes to understand the most important value of the society "to be so that others may be."
It's hard to pull off a reasonable version of the future, and Yellow Sign makes exceptionally good use of their limited resources in the small theater beside Club Charles to do just that. There's the aforementioned hologram machine, a simple but effective set (designed by Doug Johnson), and the BDSM-looking "cupids" who change the sets between scenes and come to play an increasingly active role in the plot. The strong performances by the actors go a long way to make this tale not only believable but compelling; it is Burke's script and direction, however, that deserves a lot of the credit. A great actor can't make a shitty play good, but a strong script can bring out excellent performances.
Part of what is interesting in the writing is the way that Burke combines two cliches to create something interesting and new. Dystopian tales of our mangled future have become as predictable as romantic comedies, but Burke manages to make both fresh-and bring out their inherent horrors-by combining them. The end, though predictable, achieves a strange mixture of triumph and tragedy that strikes a new tone.
Valentine's Day was a perfect time for the Yellow Sign Theatre to introduce Baltimore to this futuristic, dystopian take on the rom-com, but its relevance won't diminish now that the most saccharine of all our saccharine holidays has passed. We're always obsessed with our relationships and what they say about us as individuals and how they fit into our larger place in society, and 1+ gives us even more to obsess and worry about.