OCTET – Signature Theatre
The performance area of Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, a wide, three- quarter thrust floorspace, is transformed to a tired church basement; actors appear to be setting up for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but what kind of therapy group is it really? Before the play starts, the background music is Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, then the Negro spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”; why is the music about the moon and entering heaven?
In Dave Malloy’s imaginatively brilliant and daringly transportive, new musical “Octet”, we enter the heretofore unknown, the uncharted territory of internet addiction, as experienced by eight, beleaguered souls convened as Friends of Saul. Malloy, who wrote and composed “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812", tells their stories as an almost sung-through, nearly all a capella chamber choral. “Natasha” musicalized the spectacular exterior of an historical period on an epic scale. “Octet”, for which Malloy has composed book, music and lyrics and arranged vocals, gives pure voice to the most intimate, interior human experience in an internet universe of infinite definition.
The meeting facilitator Paula (Starr Busby) leads the group of eight (one straggles in late) in an opening prayer, “The Hymn: The Forest" which, in richly melded harmony, the group conjures sylvan peace. The narrative structure that enfolds, according to Malloy’s author notes, is influenced in part by the episodic format of “A Chorus Line” and the concept musical nature of “Company” (absent ANY semblance to traditional musical comedy content). The Friends of Saul share their individual addiction stories, as is done in AA but the Twelve Steps have been replaced with Eight Principles, e.g. Principle 8- Anxiety with others starts with anxiety with self. Still, like in AA, powerlessness is the root of addiction; “We’re not wired to handle this” Paula solemnly declares.
Jessica (Margo Seibert) shares, i.e. sings, first about the hellish, unintended internet celebrity of becoming “the angry white woman” in a video that went viral. In a toe-tapping number “Candy” the gay Henry (Alex Gibson) laments, with bemused self-abasement, the candy-themed games and apps that trigger his addiction. Malloy gets more poignant with Paula’s pitiful, elegiac “Glow”; she’s a recovering internet addict, but her husband is active. In haunting melody, she describes lying in bed next to him but isolated in the dead of night with “the steal, pale glow lighting up the sheets” blocking out the moonlight. (Recall Debussy’s Claire de Lune.) In a stunning ensemble number “The Fugue”, to the simple stroke of a metronome, a group meditation gives way to a Tower-of-Babel, fraught communion.
Part 2 of the 90-minute intermissionless OCTET begins with another hymn, this not about the inspirational tranquility of “The Forest" that began Part 1, but about the painful acknowledgement of “Monster”, the spiritually erosive, all-consuming obsession with the internet. The church basement morphs into an undefined interior space; Christopher Bowser’s edgy lighting design here is startlingly effective. Malloy’s book and score turns even darker. In a duet ironically called “Solo”, Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (Adam Bashian) articulate the emotional vacancy and subversive dangers of compulsive sexting and on-line hook-ups. Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) dives deeper with his solo, “Actually” where, drowned in political conspiracy theory and alternative fact, his paranoia rules.
Neurochemist Marvin plunges even deeper down the rabbit hole; in his “Little God”, a crazy head-trip that cobbles together his scientific discipline and metaphysical extrapolations, he believes he’s found irrefutable proof of God. Marvin brings us to a spiritual, heavenly edge. (Recall “comin’ for to carry me home” from “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.) The ensemble “Tower Tea Ceremony” brings the group back to reality of sorts; the communal tea has psychedelic effect. Velma, the straggler in the beginning of the play and its loner, is obsessed with the Tarot. (Each of Malloy’s songs corresponds to the Major Arcana.) She finds an internet soul mate, a woman in Europe. Her lovely ballad, “Beautiful”, commemorates their internet affair. (Does it matter if the silver lining to her internet compulsion is real or virtual?)
The Friends of Saul have a cultish identity; hovering invisibly over the meeting is its enigmatic leader, Saul, whose presence the group recognizes from the flickering of florescent ceiling light. The cast is uniformly excellent in voice and character. Director Annie Tippie lets Malloy’s songs- the addict’s voices -speak for themselves. Her pacing tracks perfectly the narrative arc of Malloy’s book.
Malloy laces his score with subtle melodies (even subtler than late Sondheim). Brooding internal motifs contrast with staccato rhythms that bring to mind electronic chirps and alert signals of digital devices. The songs are started with an occasional pitch pipe, or punctuated with household objects for percussion. In his author note, Malloy identifies textual inspirations that range from the works of Philip K. Dick to C.S. Lewis; his musical touch points are from the likes of Philip Glass and Toby Twining, but there’s nothing either duplicative or derivative in this marvel of a production. Malloy’s OCTET is a breathtakingly original, a wonderful work of musical theatre which boldly plumbs the timeless tale of human pain and redemption, in a new, unexplored universe.