Live by the internet, die by the internet.
If this smart, complicated and completely terrific show has a message, that would seem to be it. Boycott Esther by Emily Acker involves social-media culture and the tyranny of followers; it’s about people having/becoming brands, and about how quickly the viralizing of one false move online can bring you down.
Confession: I am not a “native speaker,” nor are my thumbs fully evolved. But just when I feared I was not young/cool/woke enough for this play, I realized its values are the same humanistic values I subscribe to. Acker acknowledges the complexity of sociopolitical ideas, the need to take responsibility for misdeeds, the dangers of easy labeling, and the need for forgiveness. It concerns the way screens hypnotize us and the need to talk face-to-face, in person, like people, not robots.
Alison Ormsby, in a stunning, pitch-perfect performance, plays Esther, a 23-year-old Starbucks barista with more than a million Twitter followers. She has been discovered by Barry Bloom (Steven Rishard), a major movie/TV producer who finds her online voice quirky, funny, militantly feminist, and altogether “the pulse of the moment,” a combination of “Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Warren.” Just as she is negotiating a big contract with him through her agent, Mary (Alexandra Espinoza), a Weinstein-like scandal breaks. Many women come forward, accusing Bloom of sexual predation: drugs, alcohol, photos. He’s fired. Esther is tainted by association.
The rest of the play is about how she copes with the crash.
Azuka’s production is dominated by a series of screens that form the looming upstage wall. Jorge Cousineau created the brilliant videos and the clever set — a tiny, clothes-strewn NYC apartment where the toilet and the coffeemaker are side by side. We meet Esther’s parents through Skype: Lenny Haas and Catherine Slusar make hilarious and moving (if oddly uncredited) appearances.
The title, Boycott Esther, is revealing and crucial: Esther’s Twitter “handle” is #WishIWasVashti, a reference to the biblical heroines (no, no heroes) of the Purim story. Esther is subtle and seemingly passive and saves her people, while Vashti is the defiant rebel, a proto-feminist. The on-screen debate between Esther and her alter ego is brief, and in its brevity Acker’s shrewd playwriting is revealed: Nothing is belabored, overexplained, or heavy-handed. This fine script gets the fine production it deserves under Maura Krause’s masterful direction.