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A new dark comedy explores the perils of looking for love in the digital age
There's an old adage that applies to newfangled dating apps: If the person with whom you're messaging seems too good to be true, then, probably, he or she is not real. But playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner also believes that even a "fake" -- you know, the one with the perfect midriff and way-too-interesting hobbies -- isn't completely lying, either.
In her new dark comedy Kingdom Come, making its world premiere at Roundabout Underground, Weiner's millennial characters delve into online dating -- the exhilarating and exhausting act of swiping for dates, sex, and connection. It's an opportunity to highlight the prettiest/sexiest/silliest profile picture…even if, as in the show, the photo isn't of you at all.
"I think that we all have a mask that we project," says Weiner. "Every person's Facebook profile and Instagram is the mask that we want to be seen as; it's the way we hope to be projected and received. We're curating our image through the internet."
For some, like Kingdom Comes' obese, bedbound Samantha (Carmen M. Herlihy) and anxiety-riddled Layne (Crystal Finn), using the popular OkCupid app is a chance to be noticed. In order for that to happen, both characters believe they must be other, "better" people. Laney invents "Courtney," an exuberant, blonde flight attendant with a penchant for adventure and pretty photos. Sam bases her avatar on real-life Dominick (Alex Hernandez), a former high-school acquaintance and the son of her caretaker, Dolores (Socorro Santiago).
The idea for the show came from Weiner's own life. "I was feeling mystified that this was the way that we now had to meet people in this generation," she says. "I think all of my friends at that time had been grappling with how do we completely engage in this internet dating experience, while also protecting ourselves and not losing hope? "
Weiner had been chatting with a guy for over a month. They developed a significant relationship. They talked almost every day, sometimes all day. And when they finally met, she was disappointed. "He just wasn't any of the things I had imagined him to be," she recalls. That experience, coupled with a friend who had been catfished (the digital-age term for luring someone into an online relationship via a false persona) inspired the playwright to examine this rather harrowing phenomenon of searching for love online. (Her friend, by the way, believed he was talking to another man in New York City -- not a middle-school girl in Texas!)
Because of those fails, Weiner became fascinated by the anonymous power these apps provide to decide not only who we want to be, but who the person we're talking to could be. Beneath the superficial lies you'll find the heart of Kingdom Come: two desperately lonely women who fall in love. Even when the truth reveals itself, their connection can't be denied. Weiner argues that online profiles are "our way of expressing a deep part of ourselves…without having to be vulnerable externally. I think Laney and Samantha are both truly being themselves once they find connection with each other."
As for the research that went into the show, in addition to watching MTV's Catfish and TLC's My 600-lb Life, and speaking with a psychiatrist to get a sense of the characters' anxiety and loneliness, Weiner tried her luck with the apps Bumble, Happn, Tinder, JSwipe, JDate, and more. "The one I met my boyfriend on is called The Dating Ring," she says. "It's a kind of funny anecdote to this story of how this play was written in my search for love and questioning about dating online. I'm happy to have met my boyfriend. But it's just interesting to look at the whole broad scheme."
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top image: Stephanie Styles and Carmen M. Herlihy