Critic’s Pick: Review: The Human Voice Versus the Internet in ‘Octet’

Critic’s Pick

In Dave Malloy’s ravishing new a cappella chamber musical, members of an addiction support group compare notes on getting lost in the web.


A scene from the musical “Octet,” by Dave Malloy, at the Signature Theater.CreditCreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ben Brantley

Hi, my name is Ben, and I’m an internet addict. Since the odds are that you are, too — you are living in the 21st century, right? — let me tell you about this wonderful new support group I’ve discovered.

It meets in what feels like every church basement you’ve ever seen, and its official membership is limited to eight, for reasons that feel a little creepy. But trust me when I tell you that if you sit in on one of its sessions, you’ll feel reassured, alarmed, enlightened and truly thrilled by what you hear.

If you choose not to attend, you will be missing what promises to be the most original and topical musical of the year.

Dave Malloy’s “Octet,” the sublime a cappella chamber opera that opened on Sunday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is a portrait in song of perhaps the greatest David and Goliath struggle of our time. In one cavernous corner, there’s the endless, labyrinthine and shape-shifting internet, commonly referred to in this show as “the monster.”

In the other corner, there is the naked and unaccompanied human voice, about as low-tech as you can get. Voice versus Void: You probably think you know the outcome. You’re wrong, no matter which way you call it.

In choosing subjects, Mr. Malloy never makes it easy on himself. He is best known for translating a hunk of “War and Peace” into the Broadway knockout “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” In the underrated “Preludes,” he found the songs in writer’s block, as it was experienced by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. And his “Ghost Quartet” was a mutable feast of the different kinds of stories people tell to scare themselves.

In each case, Mr. Malloy’s score was an inspired marriage of willfully wayward form and unlikely content. With “Octet,” though, he might seem to be overreaching.

I mean, if you’re going to create a stage show that braves the depths of cyberspace, you’ll presumably need an arsenal of technological bells and whistles. Yet the weapons plied by the eight uniformly excellent performers here are nothing more than lips, larynx, lungs and so forth — stuff that most people have been born with for many millenniums.

The only instrument heard during the 100-minute production, supplely and imaginatively directed by Annie Tippe, is a pitch pipe. And every time one appears from a performer’s pocket, you brace yourself for a new adventure.

That’s because these layered and contrapuntal voices produce a dazzling spectrum of effects, like the swelling harmonies associated with traditional choral music and the crystal pings of personal computers.

Most important, though, Mr. Malloy’s score makes fractured thought audible (Or Matias is the musical director). What’s captured in these voices is how we feel — seduced, exhilarated, lost and dirty — every time we turn on our computers or smartphones and fall into a time-devouring wormhole.

The varieties of this experience — recreational, informational, social, sexual, political — often blur the lines between hedonism and masochism. The forms of such pursuits are parsed and absorbed as the characters — bristling with individuality and universality — take turns describing their particular addictions.


Kuhoo Verma, left, and Starr Busby in the chamber musical.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

They meet under the rubric Friends of Saul, named for the group’s enigmatic and never-seen organizer. Their leader is Paula (Starr Busby). And the space over which she presides has the insulated coziness and underground chill common to provisional meeting places.

The set designers, Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, have given this site of anonymity a very specific air of familiarity. It’s still set up for a bygone bingo game when the audience files in. What happens here more or less follows the well-known routine common to 12-step programs.

Tentatively, the testifying begins. Jessica (Margo Seibert), who identifies herself as the unwitting star of the “white woman goes crazy video,” describes being shamed online, unable to resist following every fresh assault on her reputation. “It’s like my eyes were sewn open with a piece of electric thread,” she says.

Henry (Alex Gibson) can’t stop playing candy-themed games. Paula sings of arid, sleepless nights in which she and her husband lie on sheets illuminated by “the pale, stale glow” of screens. The other members create walls and tunnels of sound, building the virtual landscape inhabited by each main speaker.

The shaming of Jessica is rendered as a hydra-headed, unkillable mob. The sickly sugar rush of Henry’s games takes the form of a bacchanalian revival meeting. (No choreographer is credited, but these numbers are staged with wild and witty precision.)

Without our being aware of it, the room has become darker (Christopher Bowser did the lighting), and the testimonies lead us down clammier, twistier corridors. There are tales of Tinder-esque mate-seeking and porn consumption (recounted by Kim Blanck, with memorable assistance from Adam Bashian).

After that, we fall into an increasingly murky abyss, where the codes and consequences, the trawling and trolling of the internet are considered with scorching, circular cynicism by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez). Marvin (J.D. Mollison), a neurological researcher, relates a fantastical story about the slippery nature of faith in a world where any reality can be conjured virtually.

Then Velma (Kuhoo Verma), the newcomer, relates a quiet, heartfelt account of connecting with someone in a distant land who would seem to be just like her. Sweet, huh? There’s nothing sinister here. Except that this virtual friendship is all she lives for.

There are several hymns in the show, filled with lush lyricism, about the quest for purity in a world of contaminants. The one that concludes the performance is so ravishing, so seemingly affirmative that you leave the theater thinking you have witnessed an undeniable victory of collaborative, creative humanity over runaway technology.

Then again, just who is this Saul? Is he even real? And why has he brought these particular chosen ones together?

Mr. Malloy isn’t about to offer easy closure when a Pandora’s box has been opened to such infinite possibilities and repercussions. Nonetheless, I’m going to chalk up this beautiful, absorbing, disturbing work as a win for art.


Tickets Through June 16 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; 212-244-7529, Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Credits Music, lyrics and book by Dave Malloy; directed by Annie Tippe; music supervision and music direction by Or Matias; scenic design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta; lighting by Christopher Bowser; sound by Hidenori Nakajo; production stage manager, Jhanaë Bonnick; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Meghan Lantzy. Presented by Paige Evans, artistic director, Harold Wolpert, executive director, James Houghton, founder.

Cast Adam Bashian (Ed), Kim Blanck (Karly), Starr Busby (Paula), Alex Gibson (Henry), Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), J.D. Mollison (Marvin), Margo Seibert (Jessica) and Kuhoo Verma (Velma).

More about Dave Malloy and ‘Octet’

Ben Brantley has been the co-chief theater critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.


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