A nice little play about hipsters and snuff porn, “The Footage” really wants to say something. But while playwright Joshua Scher writes with candid, self-incriminating ease about the intimacy problems of a generation permanently Bluetoothed into various gadgets, his insights into fame and violence are cribbed from too many bad movies. Able-bodied perfs by enthusiastic Flea Theater house troupe the Bats buoy the play’s smarter scenes and flesh out the thin female characters, and the eventual annoying descent into cheap schlock can’t quite negate Scher’s sparkling dialogue and strong male roles.
At his most observant, Scher creates a world more familiar to some of us than we’d like to admit. It’s a place where the instructions “Drop the bag, grab a beer and take off your pants” are the opposite of a come-on; they’re an invitation to veg out on the couch and play XBox for several days in the wake of a break-up. Romantic support is gone.
Such is the sad fate of Dodge (Nicolas Flower), an amateur boxer who rolls into his buddy Chance’s bachelor pad with nothing but a forlorn expression and a duffel bag full of clothes. Wannabe moviemaker Chance (Jamie Effros) has one of those awful entry-level entertainment industry jobs that swallow aspiring creative types — it gives him an iPhone, but it slowly bludgeons his soul to death with daily indignities at the hands of spoiled celebrities. Thus, he takes refuge in video games, porn and general loserdom, keeping company with nerds Dodge and Ethan (Michael Micalizzi).
The best and least probable thing in Chance’s life is his pretty, patient, smart girlfriend Maya (well-played by Caroline Hurley). Maya appears to have put up with quite a bit from Chance, but she’s nearing the end of her rope over his latest obsession: a series of grainy videos (the footage of the title) posted every day on YouTube. They feature an attractive girl (Elizabeth Alderfer), bound and crying, who does whatever a distorted voice tells her to do, a la “Saw.” Maybe it’s an act, maybe it’s real.
Whatever is happening seems to be coming from the basement of a second houseful of twentysomethings — Lauren (a wonderful Blair Baker) and Alexa (Rachel McPhee), two girls with a third, rarely-seen roommate. Into their lives comes teenaged runaway JC (Michael Guagno), recently escaped from a camp for unruly kids.
Scher and helmer Claudia Zelevansky are really on to something when romance starts to bud between the characters. As an increasingly frustrated Maya begins to flirt with Dodge across the room via text message, we get a sense of the loneliness these people have only expressed so far in badly overwritten blogs (Maya), obsessive gaming (Dodge and Ethan), and late nights analyzing the footage (Chance). Maya and Dodge barely talk to one another, but they’re so lonely the air between them practically crackles with pent-up longing.
Even sweeter, when Lauren meets Ethan playing “Hellcraft” (a pretty clear “World of Warcraft” analogue — both the lingo and several goofy video clips are taken from the game), she can only express her feelings in webspeak.
“He’s so funny,” mutters Lauren bashfully. “ROFLMAOs up the yinyang.” If you allow yourself to be put off by this sort of thing (Rolling On the Floor Laughing My Ass Off, FYI), you’ll miss a lot of what’s promising about “The Footage.” This is a play that badly wants to be about love in an isolated era, but Scher ultimately opts for a less challenging road in the final few scenes. We learn all about the footage, we see the two least interesting characters wreak havoc on the rest of the cast, and we’re left to despair.
What keeps this from being a loss is an arguably more disturbing image that is much more central to the play’s themes than the writer seems to realize. It’s the sight of three grown, intelligent men sitting morosely in a dank apartment as if they’re waiting to ripen, letting life-starting opportunities like love, deep friendship and creative inspiration pass them by. That’s much scarier than anything else here.