Reviewed by Gregor Collins
Even in the anxiety-soaked days when I leave my Hell’s Kitchen studio with the TV blaring on a news channel so that I can feel like I’m returning home to the distant drone of congenial roommates—there are days, like this evening, that I feel loved.
And who would have thunk it, an artificially intelligent sex doll named Mia is what loved me.
Plopping down in my seat at 7:55pm in time to catch five minutes of spontaneously fainting goats (apparently it’s a thing) playing on the giant video screen as the show-before-the-show, I felt a little “off kilter,” and when in those first few moments staring at a stage waiting for a show to begin I find myself feeling “off kilter”, it’s usually a sign I’m destined to leave the theater unable to shake it off.
My instincts were right.
One hundred minutes later, I did something I haven’t done since seeing 1984 on Broadway—I cried. Okay, I was about to. It was coming. My eyes were filling up like Ed Harris’s helmet in the movie The Abyss. And I fought that flood off like anyone would do who remembered they sat in front and had to turn around and face those people like a man who would NEVER cry at a comedy, no matter how dark it was.
Directed by Nick Flint and written by Nadja Leonhard-Hooper and Dan Nuxoll, Eat The Devil is a new play set in a dystopian, media-crazed near-future, where a mysterious virus is infecting the nation. As viciously competitive media pundits battle to control the narrative, it’s the artificially intelligent sex doll Mia—the alpha and the omega of the story—who most captivates our imagination.
And not because she’s every guy’s (and girl’s) dream, even though she is—she’s like Scarlet Johansson from the movie Her if she were in human form—and not because we want to get naked with her, even though we definitely want to—but because the wonderful actor who plays her—Kelindah Schuster—keeps us on edge about what’s really going on under that facade only Michelangelo could have constructed. Is she good? Is she evil? Does she love me? Does she want to kill me? One minute she’s a kind-hearted, skin-coated computer taking direction from her creator Penny (Lexie Braverman), and the next minute she’s belting out a spot-on impression of a porn actor being pleasured, all done with a meek authenticity that makes us feel like the world ending isn’t so shitty after all.
Every audience member in that theater, including me, wanted Mia, or the actor—I’m not sure which—to walk up to each one of us and whisper: “I love you.” But since it wasn’t going to happen, we all stuck around hoping it would. And in the meantime we were treated to an immensely talented ensemble-cast-of-8, every one of them dripping with charisma, whose sterling comedic timing and impeccable elocution of dense dialogue, was nothing shy of dazzling. If there was a weak actor in the bunch, I would have singled them out. But there wasn’t. Please Google them all and cast them in your dramatic comedy show.
Eat the Devil packs a poignancy punch under what you might initially have written off as mere absurdist comedy belonging on the final-sketch-of-the-evening on Saturday Night Live. But no, there’s something way deeper going on here.
We’re given multiple delightfully disjointed narratives that mirror our daily lives, including Nathaniel Kent as real-life Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones, Jenna Rubaii as real-life Conservative Commentator Tomi Lahren, Kev Berry and Emily Via as two nutso flight attendants for Red Tube Airlines (Red Tube being the largest porn hub on the web—a friend told me this), Ben Fine as the hilarious, raspy-voiced pilot who turns out to be, well, I don’t want to spoil it, Rory Spillane (a more talented version of Michael Cera) as an eremitic adolescent who orders a sex doll (Mia) and gets to unbox her and have sex with her before he plans on killing himself from being so romantically misunderstood.
And while these characters, or the actors playing them, could have been reduced to hollow caricatures going for cheap laughs, there were traces of profundity, of raw emotion, in every manic portrayal. The real beauty of the show is that in the throes of folly, the genuine moments of connection, of angst, of loss, and of love, keep us truly grateful for Off-Off Broadway theater at its delicious-est.
And for a show with a picayune budget, what they squeezed out of the production value is worth mentioning, the video, sound, lighting, scenic and costume designs (Scott Fetterman, Brendan Aanes, David Shocket, James Hunting, Kenisha Kelly) were characters as salient as the actors themselves. And Flint’s use of the video throughout the evening was masterful, seamlessly cutting from stage to screen, adding to the mounting pangs of dramatic tension.
But back to Mia. Oh, Mia. Yes, I fell in love with her. My love for her, though, had nothing really to do with why I left the theater feeling like Ed Harris’s helmet. It was what she imparted to us in a dead-silent theater at the very end of the show:
“And so, when all we see is darkness, and all we feel is our stomach falling, and we think: is this all going to go okay? Are we going to be okay? Just remember that it’s me flying the plane. And that I’m taking us home.”
After an entire evening spent trying to make us roar with laughter and join in on the impish insanity of it all, it was a sex doll named Mia who seductively whispered us into experiencing calm, into knowing we’re safe, and into feeling loved. And at this, every single audience member collectively thought: Maybe I will be okay.
One Year Lease Theater Company presents Eat the Devil at The Tank (312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues), February 21-March 9, 2019.