Trenchcoat in Common explores loss of privacy in a Web-connected world

There comes a time in every blogger's life when she discovers an alarming truth: People actually read her words. I started blogging partly out of a desire to share Important Cultural Musings with other like-minded individuals, and partly out of a simple need to unload. In truth, though, I scarcely believed that anyone besides my mother would bother to look at the thing. So when people started responding to posts on subjects as arcane as whether a theater critic should read a play before she reviews it, I was flummoxed. The information superhighway turned out to be faster and fuller of freaks than I had previously thought.

The paradox of seeking connection through online communication while simultaneously wishing to maintain your privacy is exposed in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's raucous if ultimately unsatisfying comedy, Trenchcoat in Common (or T.I.C. for short). He uses a fictional teenager's tell-all blog about her neighbors as a jumping-off point for a timely exploration of the impact of the information age on our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic habits. But while Encore Theatre Company's world premiere production directed by Ken Prestininzi zips along at a speed akin to the dissemination of topless Paris Hilton photographs on the Internet, the playwright's vision stalls.

T.I.C. follows several weeks in the life of a high school student known as the Kid, who winds up living with her father in his San Francisco tenancy-in-common apartment following her mother's sudden death. Bored, isolated, and uncomfortable about living with the gay-porn–surfing middle-ager whose sperm helped to bring about her birth, the Kid turns to her laptop for solace. In addition to spying on her progenitor and the four weirdos who occupy the rest of the building, she chronicles her findings on a blog. The more she learns about the goings-on in her T.I.C., the more certain she becomes of foul play. When one of the neighbors goes missing under mysterious and possibly violent circumstances, the Kid decides it's time to play Sherlock — with hilarious consequences.

It's difficult to imagine a worthier bunch of desperados upon which to base a blog — or a stage comedy, for that matter — than those who populate the Kid's building. Sabra Jones (a fittingly uptight Arwen Anderson) is a needy, single thirtysomething with a sugar addiction and penchant for hitting on unsuitable men. A third-rate rock musician with a death wish, Shye Macarthur Pleasanton Jr. (played with demented self-absorption by Lance Garnder) spends his tortured hours composing dreadful songs and taking his anger out on his neighbors. Hardly ever seen without a joint between her lips, Anne Darragh's Claudia Borealis is an aging hippie who matches a newfound passion for homeownership with a misplaced revolutionary fervor. The Kid's father (portrayed with empathetic quirkiness by Michael Shipley) does weird things with Listerine. Then there's Terrence, a man with a creepy moustache and no last name, who passes the time at his window dressed in nothing but sensible black shoes, white socks, and a trenchcoat. Of Liam Vincent's performance in this role, more later.

Set against James Faerron's versatile scenic design with its frame motif reminiscent at once of a window, camera viewfinder, and computer screen, the play gleefully contrasts notions of what it means to spy and be spied upon in our technologically driven times. Nachtrieb skillfully offsets Terrence's old-fashioned, Rear Window–inspired snooping with the Kid's tech-savvy methods. While he's ogling his neighbors through binoculars, she's rigging up Web cams, uploading covertly shot videos to YouTube, and Googling combinations like "Claudia Borealis Tragedy Curve Ball Pot Smoking Sadness" in an effort to plunder her fellow T.I.C.-dwellers' secrets. Sound designer Sara Huddleston's purposefully intrusive soundscape of random sobs, orgasmic moans, heavy breathing, and ominously ringing phones echoes the fragmented truths the Kid discovers through her dogged detective work.

A backhanded homage to the Web 2.0 generation, the comedy reveals with satirical humor the ease with which people can find out information about each other in our infinitely networked world. Furthermore, T.I.C. explores the ramifications of this lowering of privacy barriers. In this post–Jerry Springer climate, where people admit to murder on TV and blog freely about having terminal cancer, a traditional flasher (or, as he puts it, "humble exhibitionist") like Terrence simply can't compete. "Last week I executed my boldest maneuver, the Ghipetto, flawlessly to a group of Ohioan tourists," oddball Terrence laments in one of Nachtrieb's most vividly written passages. "But their only response was a polite cough and a single digital group photo." That the audience happily sits through a good ten minutes of full-frontal nudity while the less-than-humble albeit weirdly endearing exhibitionist Vincent strides about the stage in the buff is telling: Terrence's trenchcoat-doffing ways can't even ruffle upstanding theater audiences.

Despite its entertainment value and flawless execution, T.I.C. leaves the viewer feeling as frustrated as the archetypal Peeping Tom who falls out of the tree just as the lady in the window is about to remove her bra. Notwithstanding glimmers of profundity, Nachtrieb's extended piece of sketch comedy skims the surface of ideas without truly connecting them. The play feels as if it wants to build to some revelation about our culture of voyeurism. But instead, it largely ends up telling us the obvious, such as the fact that we live in a time of open networks and very few taboos. In short, what this comedy is missing is a knockout punch line.

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