Ken Greller’s new play Troll, debuting now at The Secret Theatre in a production by The Rushline Company, plunges headlong into the hyper-modern. Are our online selves our true selves at all? If not, what are they? What do their actions say about us? The questions are vividly relevant.
The acting and production are superb under Jason Modica’s nimble and sensitive direction. The production’s problems lie in the play itself.
The story centers on Ari (Brian Drummy), a Gawker blogger who has dug up the real-life identity of a notorious Reddit troll who sponsors hateful and offensive discussions on that controversial website. In a focused, and funny, first scene, Ari reveals his passion for his work. He believes he can change the world by exposing (in internet parlance, “doxing”) such anonymous troublemakers.
As the play opens, Ari and his writer friend Tim have ducked away from the action at a Halloween party to talk about their lives and careers. Their conversation perfectly captures the always-on hyperactivity of the selfie era – these are young, energetic adults who have never known a world without constant connectivity. Simultaneously, the contrast between their characters and their Halloween costumes becomes gradually apparent, a subtle dramatic effect that also works really well.
Drummy’s performance makes Ari so meatily alive that we root for him both professionally and personally. Unfortunately, the script loses focus. In the next scene Ari arrives at his ex-boyfriend’s apartment, from which he is moving out following a breakup. The couple has split ostensibly because of Ben’s (Reggie D. White, very good in a thankless role) decision to “try to make my life a little easier” by living as a heterosexual.
There’s potential pathos there. But this isn’t Ben’s story, and more to the point, it isn’t the story of the relationship either. The drawn-out scene feels like it comes from another play. Just when we’ve gotten acclimated to Ari’s and Tim’s digitally-paced milieu, the script sinks us into a slow, overlong, and unnecessary domestic drama that even a touch of violence can’t actually make compelling, because the dialogue goes in circles.
Greller is very good at realistic dialogue delineating the detailed nitty-gritty of human relations. But the scene lacks directionality, we become bored, and the play never fully recovers.
The action takes place as Superstorm Sandy is bearing down on the East Coast. But that tension feels grafted on. A climatic parallel to the “storm” of Ari’s eventual confrontation with the troll himself, Arnold (Jeffrey Delano Davis in a powerful performance), feels like overkill.
Many individual moments and passages are staged beautifully, like Arnold’s silent realization that the person on the phone is the writer who, he knows, has found him out and can ruin his life and even cause harm to his family. Through this confrontation, and through Ari’s sometimes heated conversations with Tim, the play goes a good way toward laying out the social and societal complexities of online anonymity.
Arnold’s sole scene gains extra sizzle from its staging: He and Ari – is the similarity in names intentional? – “face” each other across a table, even as they are actually a thousand miles apart, speaking over the phone.
Walls of empty cartons function effectively, too, as backdrops and as symbols of how our fragile barriers can so easily tumble down. The creative lighting (Steve Shack) and sound (Maggie Burke) effectively convey the neo-bohemian Brooklyn ambience. The audience’s placement on the wings immerses us in the action. And the cast, as I mentioned, is very fine, with Drummy’s central performance an award-worthy Off-Off-Broadway highlight.
But a fine production can’t make up for material that misses the mark as storytelling. This Troll needs some more time under the bridge.
Troll is at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens, through April 24. Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.