What if your suicide went viral while you were sitting in class one day?
The day before it happens, Antonia Dargas doesn't even have a Facebook. But, overwhelmed with loneliness, the young college girl takes the plunge into the world of social media and quickly discovers its dark side when an overeager reporter from the Centarian, the school newspaper, reports that she has committed suicide. And because it's on the Internet, everyone believes him, and because they've never noticed her before, they don't believe her.
The premise of Clickbait, written and directed by David M. deLeon and Esther Ko, is as fascinating as it is heartbreaking. The play brings you into a world that feels like both a parody of this generation's obsession with technology and a completely faithful depiction of it. From the plots centering around Twitter wars and Tinder complications to the fact that you're on your phone the entire performance, this is a new sort of play.
The technological dimensions of the play are what makes Clickbait stand out. Once on the show's wifi network, you can access in turn the characters' Facebook photos, Twitter feeds, chatrooms in which they interact with each other during class and even the games they're playing together on their own phones. The Tinder messages from characters in the play were a particularly nice touch, and if it's a little too easy to get distracted by your own texts during the piece, that's sort of the point, isn't it?
The Smartphone Generation
The interactions between invisible Antonia, played by co-writer Esther Ko, and archetypical girl next door Inez (Liana Arapas) are some of the highlights of the play, while Inez and Professor Grainey's once anonymous history and its later consequences perfectly set us up in the digital era. While Antonia's plight and loneliness are deeply touching, however, the rest of the cast are such caricatures of the iPhone generation that is sometimes hard to care about their relationships or subplots, such as the fundraiser wars between Sandy and Andy to raise awareness about suicide prevention.
Ricardo and Kayla, the Centarian journalists who start the chaos, are likewise immensely frustrating to watch at the beginning of the play--when Kayla hears and records Antonia speak the words "I am Antonia Dargas," she turns it into a hashtag and walks away. But their respective journeys toward redemption provide an intriguing counterpoint to Antonia's embracing of the false story. Sajda Waite as Kayla is the closest thing we have to a voice of reason in the play, while Gamal El Sawah as Ricardo demonstrates with the greatest subtlety that Antonia isn't the only one feeling completely isolated in this virtually connected world.
Inside the Social Network
The set of Clickbait feels simultaneously like a college cafeteria and the physical embodiment of Facebook, but somehow it all works. The action is happening all around you all the time, and actors will ask you your opinions on the Antonia story or to take a selfie with them at any moment. The barrier between the physical and digital worlds is virtually nonexistent, as the physical enactments of smartphone games and the symbolic creation of the "web" at the start of the play clearly show.
This is a world that's current enough to have a JLaw nude photo reference and where the most magical place on campus is the land of no cell reception. Clickbait is often absolutely hilarious, but its dark moments are what stick with you. While the most amazing part of the show is its remarkably successful use of technology--the live feeds went down during a few phone game moments but it's incredible that so much did work in a live performance--but the story and the strong performances by the actors were also crucial in making the play what it is.
What's so terrifying about Clickbait is that this could happen to anyone at any time. What makes it a great time is that we can still laugh at ourselves, how seriously we take social media and what we ignore in the face of what we think matters most. The cast and crew of Clickbait have brought new theater screeching into the 21st century, and brings up issues too important to ignore.
Clickbait performs at Access Theater at 380 Broadway through September 14. For more about efforts to prevent suicide among college students, visit the Jed Foundation.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.