The New Colony at Steppenwolf Garage. By Andrew Hobgood and Megan Johns. With ensemble cast. 1hr 50mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
Say what you will about my generation's political discourse—the Occupiers, the hacktivists, the article-sharers, the public-shamers—but for many of us, our eyes are open, even if they're most often directed at a screen. Information is power, and we have unprecedented access. But still, as Jonathan (Evan Linder) laments in the New Colony's latest, we have trouble finishing the things we start. Movements die out. We get bored. Convenience still mediates our activism. Some things can get done that way, but meaningful institutional change? Movements that follow through? Maybe, as reWILDing Genius suggests, it still takes a small group of thoughtful committed citizens to change the world. Like Will Bailey said to President Bartlet, "It's the only thing that ever has."
Andrew Hobgood and Megan Johns's script spends its first act ingratiating us to our would-be superhero team: a misfit band of activists and hackers who will take on Big Pharma. The first scene feels like an intimate slice-of-life, compelling for its quick pace, humor, and specificity of the characters and their relationships. The New Colony's process gives the actors agency to fully immerse themselves in their characters and investigate them to a point beyond even the playwright's scope of knowledge. They can even function as a check on the playwright—letting them know if a particular line rings false for their character. This is a large part of what makes these characters and their dynamic feel so natural. It's just that the play spends too much time calling these characters to action. Taking your time is one thing, but the majority of this journey plays out over one long political discussion.
Establishing a common knowledge base for the audience is important, and it's not often that a play devotes so much time to the arguments and justifications behind the cause when depicting activists. The trick, however, is to do so without making the audience feel like the characters are lecturing for their benefit. The brilliant performances and nimble pace help us through it, but there's only so long you can put up with people who already agree talking about what everyone in the room already knows. It tries to tell the audience so much in so little time that it overextends. And the arguments, while intelligently designed, feel primarily abstract. The personal motivations—Big Pharma cutting the funding for Ged's (Wes Needham) project, the financial burden of helping a friend pay for expensive medication that brings Anya (Morgan McNaught) to the apartment—are brought in only secondarily, revealed through "oh yeah" moments. Aligning the personal and political sooner could have given so much more focus to this team's origin story, and raised the stakes even higher.
But then there's this remarkable powerhouse of a second act, which takes us right to the middle of the operation: laptops out all around, hackers hunched over, coding, sending reports and wisecracks back and forth. It feels real-time, immediate—about as invigorating a hacking scene as you're likely to see onstage. And then things start to go wrong. Finally, an inciting incident, a conflict. The play suddenly feels honed, focused, just as the characters are losing control. It does a little to vindicate the first act, at least conceptually, in that feeling of the first act's overflowing idealism, that sense of being extraordinary, smashing into painful reality. This is the real heat of the piece, but having devoted so much of its runtime to exposition, the play feels like it's rushing through it. It's still gripping, but I wondered how much more could have been explored, how much more satisfying its final moments might have been, had our investment been demanded this way from the very start.