In "The Hollow Men," T. S. Eliot wrote: "Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow." In Neal Bell's new play, Now You See Me, currently on stage at Manbites Dog Theater, it is the TV camera and its ubiquitous images that fall between. Dispassionately directed by fellow Duke professor Jody McAuliffe, with chilly video by Duke art professor William Noland, this brief one-act examines ideas about privacy and self-determination in a culture skewed against both in favor of bodiless electronic contacts and the falseness of "reality" TV.
Perhaps because I rarely watch TV and have never seen any of these "reality" shows, since they represent to me the dust and rubble of a fallen civilization, I found the rather mild parody in Now You See Me inadequately savage for generating the dark comedy advertised, and the play's outcome easily foreseeable. The premise is that Claire — Rachel Klem in another bold interpretation — a lonely person who lives alone and maintains a primary relationship with her TV (J Evarts, in a lively departure from her typical roles), is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer by an ice-hearted doctor. In an attempt to get a new drug, she applies for inclusion on a "reality" show that would follow her every moment, her last days, weeks, months, with multiple cameras. The drug is the bait (the same bait used by the clinical trials people), but so is the sheer visibility the show would offer her. Her actual reality is so flat and sad and empty that participating in this egregious offense to modesty seems like a good idea.
And anyway, she, like any other seriously ill person, already knows that privacy is a myth, a delusion no longer affordable. She's willing to expose herself further in her struggle to survive. She draws the line, however, when she discovers the scurrilous producer Ravenel (the large and untucked Carl Martin, who makes you want to go home immediately and bathe) and his assistant Bixby (Chris Burner, failing in TV due to the lingering presence of compassion) are setting her up, forcing her into situations that will make "good TV." Enlightenment dawns; she packs up her old kit bag and heads for the horizon.
The more interesting aspect of this play to me was the relationship on stage between camera and image and body and action. What do we look at? Why do we look at the projected image, or the monitor image, when a live human is before us? Has living like multiplying lab rats in a shrinking cage brought us to use these electronic shields in a kind of self-protection, like keeping your eyes to yourself on the subway? Klem, as Claire, asks early on, "What will you look at, me or the monitor?" I had to tear my eyes away from Klem in order to look at her image — but once it had its hooks in me, I was nearly helpless to look away. It is a fascinating phenomenon.
On preview night, before the official premiere, the play seemed scant somehow, and too low-key. The direction lacked briskness and certainly didn't generate the emotional, explosive, heat, or any riveting stage images. The play almost seemed like a prologue to the interesting stuff about to happen after the door closes behind Claire. "I've done everything wrong," she says near the end. What would doing it right comprise? That's what we all need to know.
Now You See Me continues at Manbites Dog Theater through March 26. For details, see the sidebar.