Early on in Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy, Private Lives, the ultra-mondaine Amanda confides to her new husband Victor that she believes “ … very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.”
Flash forward 90 years to our own time, as Sin Eaters playwright Anna Moench drops us into the home of Mary and Derrick, a quasi-contented couple toasting the fact that Mary has just landed a new job at a “tech company”. (Her job and its duties are so packed in non-disclosure, she’s not even allowed to tell Derrick exactly what she does.) It’s not just the new job that has the two celebrating: Mary’s new position may be a giant step towards getting out of what Derrick affectionately calls their “den of misery”. Said den is actually a Staten Island apartment where their upstairs neighbor is a repulsively loud, foul-mouthed, obnoxious harridan, while their downstairs neighbor is a former marine plagued with PTSD who’s prone to skulking about the hallways with his handgun. Mary suggests that if only Derrick will take on some catering gigs – he hates catering, though he’s quite good at it – they’ll have enough of a regular income flow to get out of their “den of misery” and into new, less stressful digs.
We soon learn that Mary’s hush-hush tech job is with a social media company. The Internet, especially its social media province, hosts those very “thingummys” that Noel Coward and his Amanda could never imagine, but somehow understood that if and when those thingummys fused and the wrong spark was struck, there’s little that some users won’t get up to. The key difference between 1930 and 2021 is, of course, that the weirdest things they do does not stay hidden in their private lives – they are eagerly shared all across the public square of the Internet.
Mary’s employer, Between Us, is“an anonymous social networking platform that enables peer-to-peer interactions in order to discover the intimate, unseen and unknown world around us.” However, for an endless paradeof its users, ‘intimate’ is a synonym for unbridled, and what was unseen will all too soon be on view for any who log in.
However, the platform does have its code of standards, and Mary Lee’s duties as a Between Us content moderator is to view all the flagged content posted on the site and delete any content that violates the code. So, Mary sits at her computer and watches violation after violation stream by. Much of it seems to be male visitors to the site eager to share close-ups of their genitals. But some of the violations are quite disturbing, even criminal.
Mary herself gets deeply disturbed on her very first day. Steve, the top advisor at Between Us, later reminds Mary that the gatekeepers at Between Us “eat the weirdos’ sins so other people don’t have to”. But he neglects to add that if we are indeed what we eat, then a “sin eater” soon becomes a stuffed repository of contemporary transgressions.
For a time, Mary finds her home, even with all of its problems, a refuge from the world she sees at her job. She finds a kind of relief in knowing the world is not “entirely full of monsters”, like those she encounters every day on her screen. But just as many first-year medical students start thinking that they’re in the early stages of every nasty disease they read about, Mary starts thinking that the nasties she views on her screen are people she sees on the New York subway, or on the streets. And even at a much closer proximity.
Considering the terrain she’s exploring here, playwright Anna Moench missed an opportunity: Sin Eaters could have been an extremely powerful play, but what we have instead is simply an interesting drama that holds our interest all the way through. In handling this volatile material, Moench demonstrates more competence than brilliance. The dialogue is taut and realistic, but more strategically blunt than sharp. The language does not define the characters, it functions as a tool for getting the story told. And the understated ending of the piece seems more like a safe off-ramp from the tense last scene than a boffo wrap-up to what’s just transpired.
The Theater Exile production of Sin Eaters is something of a mixed bag. The strongest element was the acting. As Mary Lee, Bi Jean Ngo was a perfect fit as the young woman who doesn’t fit into the corporate culture she’s been swept into. With a face that exudes beleaguered innocence, Ngo delivered a Mary who remains fully sympathetic as she tries to fight through confusion, delusion and ethical dilemmas. When Mary carries on a one-way conversation with her colleague Gary (just a few feet away, but with headphones pulled on tightly), we can read in Ngo’s anxious face the clutch of isolation in her unsocially distanced workplace.
David M. Raine provided solid support for Ngo as Derrick (and perhaps a few other Derrick-pervaded roles). Raine was unfailingly sympathetic and hit the right notes in every scene in which he appeared, though it was clear that his was a supporting role. (That’s down to the script, not Raine’s acting abilities.)
The visual element of the show, however, was not as commendable as the acting. To put it simply, Jen Cleary’s cinematography often missed the mark. Cleary seemed to be experimenting at points, and those experiments usually were not successful. The cinematographer would occasionally try different camera angles that seemed to have no purpose other than trying something new. Also, from time to time, the screen would suddenly turn blue, for no apparent reason other than to go blue. In short, too much of the cinematography served as distraction rather than value added to the performance.
Nonetheless, the script was engaging enough, the acting strong enough that Theatre Exile’s Sin Eaters is well worth a view as we slog on through the pandemic with a determination to keep Philadelphia theatre alive and kicking.
Sin Eaters is available as a Video On-Demand (VOD) option from now through Sunday March 7. Tickets can be readily purchased on the Theatre Exile website. After purchasing the VOD ticket, you’ll be able to view the show at any time and your ticket will be valid for 48 hours from the time it is first viewed, regardless of when it was purchased.