Review: New Golden Age Imagines the Terrifying Dystopia Awaiting Us in 2033
Karen Hartman's play envisions the next step in the tech revolution.
Walking around Manhattan's sidewalks and seeing all the clumsy zombies staring transfixed into their iPhones, it is clear to me that many of my fellow New Yorkers already treat their devices like an extension of their arm — so is the next logical step to implant the device directly into one's body? Karen Hartman imagines so in her dystopian thriller New Golden Age, now making its New York debut with Primary Stages as part of the inaugural Volt Festival at 59E59 Theaters.
It takes place in 2033, when the most powerful man on the planet is not named Jeff or Elon, but Mat (Doug Harris). He's the founder and CEO of Sunlight, a company that has made billions placing Sunplants in the necks of people all over the globe. Completely free, they do everything the present suite of Apple devices can do without you ever having to look down at a screen. But, there's a catch: "We got your cells," Mat announces to the world, as if he's Oprah giving away free biopsies. "Just a few at the edge of the Sunplant. And it turns out cells hold memories!" Mat plans to leverage this bio-intellectual property into the biggest database of human memory ever created, alarmingly branded "Sunlight Seedbank."
Standing against him is Professor Lin (Mahira Kakkar), a tenured lecturer at a prestigious university who leads the "Right to the Dark" movement with the help of teaching assistant Jace (Carmen Castillo). A true luddite, Lin never submitted to a Sunplant, so is forced to address Congress through old-fashioned Zoom. "Did you know that Sunlight harvested cells when you received your free Sunplant?" she asks America's elected representatives. "No. Just like we did not foresee two decades ago that early tech companies would mine our images, movements, voices, and feelings as data."
But even though Lin is a refusenik, most of the people she loves are not. Using a lieutenant named Silas (an appropriately charming Ricardy Fabre), Mat approaches Polly (an appropriately scattered Claire Siebers), a "Talent Worker" (read: BA loaded down with debt) who happens to be Lin's half-sister. Like a real mafia don, he makes her an offer she can't refuse.
The art of dystopian literature can be found in the pathway one suggests from the world of today, and Hartman charts one that is eminently plausible. It involves crushing debt legally transformed into a new age of indentured servitude, with free citizens and their consumer choices becoming the product harvested and sold by multinational tech firms (this part is already true).
Hartman does one better on Orwell by asserting that Big Brother's surveillance technology will not be installed in our homes by an autocratic state, but will be freely adopted out of convenience and a fear of missing out. She projects into the future our anxiety about a generation raised on such technology. And like the novelist Ada Palmer in her Terra Ignota series, she throws us into the deep end of this alien world, trusting that we will be able to swim using our tech-atrophied capacity to understand the subtleties of human behavior.
Hartman also makes a convincing case that, as our techno-dystopia becomes increasingly oppressive, our language will become cutesier, heavily influenced by present Silicon Valley parlance. Polly wants to "lean in" and "disrupt." The characters don't have emotions, they have "feels," and they value things that are "vintage" and "cozy" (meaning unfiltered through electronics). "I vibe them so hard," Mat remarks on a human interaction that particularly touches his cyborg heart.
Of course, the employment of futuristic lingo is not without its pitfalls, especially when it collides with present vernacular: "If I am lit, so are you," Professor Lin announces to her followers to warn them they are being watched, sounding more like an after-hours DJ than the playwright likely intended.
There are other missteps, including a strange folk music interlude in which the singer addresses members of the audience by name and repeats the lyric, "If I could open your mouth." It sounds ridiculous and gives us tonal whiplash right before the dramatic climax. Perhaps Hartman and director Jade King Carroll are trying to convey the awkwardness of a generation unaccustomed to face-to-face human interaction (although this doesn't excuse the inexplicable placement at a crucial point in the script).
Other aspects of Carroll's production are more nuanced: Lee Savage builds an Ivy League office for Lin, recognizably vintage except for the impenetrable miasma behind the diamond grille windows (ecological disaster is mere backdrop). Jen Caprio's costumes convey a plausible and hopeful evolution in fashion (glad to see that the Gen-Z attempt at a baggy '90s comeback was thwarted). Like designers on Star Trek, lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia and sound designer Fan Zhang collaborate seamlessly to suggest the Sunplant technology that can only be fully seen by the implanted.
Most impressive is Harris's portrayal of Mat, whose broad smile and performative sincerity betrays a lifetime of communicating through screens and successor technologies. Part motivational speaker, part Marvel supervillain, he embodies a compelling tragic hero for the 21st century. Like Oedipus before him (or more appropriately for this story, Creon in Antigone), his attempts to contravene fate end in humiliation. This is a story that we Americans, with our dreams and free will, can only ever accept the hard way.