This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.
It's not entirely clear what the title of Mac Rogers' play Viral is referring to. Well, it's clear we're not talking about a virus, in the traditional sense. This is more the world of 'click bait' and headlines like "top ten reasons you're life's a mess" . . . but it's not exactly an Internet thriller or the story of a cat video on YouTube.
Fair warning: Viral is one of those plays that in order to talk about it you have to dismantle some of its dramatic engine - or more simply - spoiler alert.
Viral, playing at the Bootleg Theater in a co-production with Moving Arts, does begin on the Internet. Meredith finds a website for assisted suicide. She's ready to end it all and the language seems right "People who agree that adults are adults, and should have access to all of their options". Meredith thinks she may have found her answer.
This alone would seem to be enough of a setup for an edgy controversial play but as they say on the web, "you won't believe what happens next . . . "
Turns out, the website is a scam run by three twenty-somethings with a dream and an odd predilection. You see they are sexually aroused watching someone die. The website is there to lure in the perfect star for their perfect "snuff film." They'd object to the term snuff film - they're trying to make art to capture the perfect moment of when it all ends.
Pretty steep ramp in, right?
What's more shocking than the setup is that Viral largely pulls it off. Playwright Mac Rogers has an ear for the worlds he's trafficking in and as bizarre as the premise seems you're willing to go along for the ride. The world we find ourselves in isn't that distant - especially in LA. The meat of the play is the struggle of someone trying to realize an artistic dream juxtaposed with the mundane pre-production details of making a video.
It's a testament to the actors that we're able to find our way in. Alicia Adams, who plays the suicidal Meredith, provides the gravitas that makes everything else in the play possible.
The challenge with Viral isn't the subject matter or the setup - it's ultimately the resolution. I left not really sure what playwright Mac Rogers wanted me to grapple with. What's the big question? What's the play really about? Yes, it's a play about artistic purity - sort of - and it's nominally a play about ending one's life. But evoking assisted suicide and extreme sexual taboos sets the bar pretty high. The play's politics ultimately don't live up to those high stakes. The ending, which after all is what the play itself has been concerned with both literally and metaphorically, feels a bit messy and unconsidered. I couldn't help feeling like "this is where you're going to leave me, after all that?"
If the subject matter doesn't shock you, go for the wonderful acting and forgive the ending.
Viral plays at the Bootleg Theater through January 31.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.
Photo: Justin Zsebe