Roundabout Underground plays a game of "Catfish" in Jenny Rachel Weiner's new play.
"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).
The hope that something better awaits us on the other side is no longer just a biblical concept, but one lived everyday in the bowels of the Internet — a wonderland of anonymous promises of love and affirmation. The only problem — as playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner depicts in her biblically titled play Kingdom Come — is that the veil is much more easily pulled from online profiles than inscrutable celestial beings.
Directed by Kip Fagan, the play makes its world premiere in Roundabout Theatre Company's black box theater as part of the Roundabout Underground season of new work. If you've ever seen the documentary film Catfish (or an episode of the subsequent MTV series), the premise won't be too large a stretch of the imagination — although Kingdom Come presents the additional complexity of a double-catfishing scenario.
Carmen M. Herlihy and Crystal Finn deliver a pair of touchingly vulnerable performances as Samantha Carlin and Layne Falcone, two lonely residents of Carson City, Nevada. Samantha's morbid obesity has left her bedridden as she bides her time watching game shows, receiving her nurse Dolores (a warm, maternal Socorro Santiago), and trolling an online-dating site where she poses as Dolores' hunky actor son Dom (a magnetically charming Alex Hernandez). Layne meanwhile is a painfully shy 33-year-old who soothes herself with meditative affirmations and is persuaded to open an online-dating account by her 23-year-old bombshell coworker Suz (played by Stephanie Styles with hilarious commitment to her character's millennial vanity). Layne makes a few futile attempts at Internet love as herself but soon trades in Layne for "Courtney," a jet-setting flight attendant with a killer beach bod.
Before long, "kingDOMcome42" and "DelayedFlight82" are a match. Yes, their basic biographies are lies, but their emotional connection is profoundly real and even extends into a sexual arena. Darrel Maloney's expert projection design illustrates an extremely intimate messaging session between the two presumably heterosexual women on the backdrop of Arnulfo Maldonado's spare set with the imposing centerpiece of Samantha's king-size bed.
Weiner's theatrical thought experiment leaves us to question whether this cyber relationship qualifies as true love. And if so, what kind of love — particularly after they cross the boundary of platonic friendship. These are interesting questions to chew on, but not necessarily ones that require tangible examples to understand the extent of their repercussions — particularly in this day and age where it's the norm to juggle several Internet profiles. What the play does have the unique opportunity to offer, however, is three-dimensional characters who deeply feel the effects of both executing and being the victims of this kind of deceit. Weiner does achieve that task to a certain extent, but the play still begs more specificity from both Samantha and Layne.
We never learn what made Layne such a shut-in, nor what led Samantha to her current state of incapacitation. As the plot unfolds and no new details about the inner workings of our protagonists are revealed, not even Herlihy and Finn's palpable chemistry can keep us fully invested. The one detail we do learn about Samantha's pre-reclusive life is that she and Dom were high school classmates — a discovery made during Dom's visit to Carson City from his new home base in Los Angeles. While Samantha gathers more fodder for her online identity, she and Dom develop a relationship that pays clear homage to The Glass Menagerie's Laura and Gentleman Caller — though Samantha's fragility is expressed through acerbic humor rather than crippling anxiety (perhaps if Laura had lived in the 21st century she would have shifted her focus from glass figurines to online chat rooms).
As in all episodes of Catfish, the other shoe drops and truths are slowly and painfully revealed, but what follows is an unlikely reversal of fortune for one of our leading ladies. It's a surprising plot twist, but in a play whose main objective is to peel back the superficial personas we so carefully curate on the World Wide Web, a few jumped sharks shouldn't be what keeps us holding our breath.