Review: New ComicCon-set Play 'FUTURE THINKING' Blasts Off at South Coast Repertory

Review: New ComicCon-set Play 'FUTURE THINKING' Blasts Off at South Coast Repertory

Michael L. Quintos 

OnStage Los Angeles Critic


COSTA MESA, CA - These days, in an increasingly open-to-the-public world of social media and instant-push celebrity news, fanboys (and, yes, fangirls) have easier and plentiful direct access to the objects of their obsessions. Hollywood itself, not surprisingly, has gotten wise to stoke the fiery fervor of such fandom by target- marketing directly to these guys, a majority of whom are likely to spend a significant chunk of their hard-earned salaries to feed their nerd-gasmic tendencies. It is perhaps the very reason why a once seemingly fringe festival like ComicCon has become, in the past decade, a juggernaut of promotion and excess, allowing majors studios a chance to corral their properties' most ardent, cosplay-loving fans under one roof and increase their excitement even more by trotting out their A-list talent for close proximity.

This media-saturated yearly event that puts celebrities and their costumed super-fans together in the same breathing space is the setting for playwright Eliza Clark's engaging new play 'FUTURE THINKING,' now having its world premiere performances at Orange County's South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa through April 24, 2016. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, this modern day play offers a fresh story that explores how many of us strive for an ideal future that's both a mix of fantasy and reality, and that, at times, these two forces are often at odds with each other as we barrel towards the future.

Funny, insightful, oddball (in a good way), and, surprisingly, even a little endearing, this new SCR-commissioned work—a now fully-realized production that was first developed and workshopped at the 2014 Pacific Playwrights Festival—feels like a unique examination of a sector you don't normally see as the subject matter of a new American play. In the same breath, however, the play truly goes out of its way to upend whatever expectations we may have about such characters at seemingly every turn, creating a surprisingly complex, and very interesting dark comedy in the process. 

Even before the play begins, audience members file into the theater to take their seats to a blaring soundtrack of contemporary pop, including Justin Beiber. I'm fairly sure that this is the first time an SCR audience sat before a production listening to this polarizing dude's music. On stage, sans a traditional curtain, you see a barely lit hotel room, which at the moment, is disheveled and in disarray. It looks more like an unused room temporarily being used for extra storage for chairs, brand new (still shrink-wrapped) unused mattresses, and other room accessories.

We soon meet a pair of male individuals seated at a small table in the middle of the room, each dressed in costume—though one is dressed more out-there than the other. 

On one side sits Jim Barnard (the hilarious Enver Gjokaj), a snarky, porn-stache adorned security guy with Reno 911-style shorts and an air of superiority so thick that it fills the room. With bellowing speech and mannerisms, Jim gets the laughs early and often. Heck, even his friggin' outfit certainly feels more like parody cosplay than actual work attire. 

Beside him, slumped over looking rather defeated in his chair, is awkward 51-year-old Peter Ford (Arye Gross), a pet-photographer by trade who has flown in to San Diego to attend ComicCon dressed in an elaborate, full head-to-toe costume mimicking his favorite character from the hit Science Fiction TV series "Odyssey." At the moment, Peter is being held in custody inside this disorganized hotel room (dubbed "The Annex") as a security precaution for his foiled attempt to approach 23-year-old "Odyssey" star Chiara Farrow (Virginia Vale) down at the convention. In doing so, Peter has apparently violated the restraining order Chiara's people had already placed on him for a similar incident at last year's meet-and-greet, causing this hotel room incarceration.

As Jim tries to grill Peter about this recent attempt to get close to Chiara—previously, Peter was stopped trying to give a vial of his own blood to the star—Peter is slowly breaking down, protesting his captivity inside what he deems is a "hotel room Guantanamo." But his intentions, he swears, are not dangerous or malicious. So what exactly is Peter's reasons for trying to talk closely with Chiara? He believes—like in the TV show—that out there is another dimension where he and Chiara (well, maybe her "Odyssey" alter ego) can live happily ever after. 

Despite such far-out reasoning, it is abundantly evident, though, that there's much more going on here than just a mere botched stalker/fan encounter. 

But ComicCon rent-a-cop Jim—a laugh-a-minute funny guy for the audience, but a threatening doofus for poor Peter—is not having it today. 

"Your ticket is a contract," Jim repeats, over-enunciated, to a distraught Peter.

A 10-year veteran of the Con, Jim sees himself to be a model for what men should strive to be: responsible, mature, and smart about choices... and sees Peter as the total antithesis of his personal attributes. Clearly talking down to him, Jim admonishes Peter for being a middle-aged man still playing dress-up and having a strange inability to separate real life from the fantasy stories he loves in "Odyssey."

"It's important to have future goals," Jim scolds Peter. 

See, for Jim, his future aspirations is to parlay his security work here and become an actual crime-solving, gun-toting, community-defending cop (oh, lord, help us all)! Of course, the not-so-subtle parallels of what wanna-be superheroes also aspire to be is lost on Jim, who, it turns out has a few demons of his own. Alas, it's not hard to see that Jim may think this high-profile arrest is yet another positive stepping stone in his ultimate career objective.

Meanwhile, in what we can assume is a nicer part of the hotel, spoiled young superstar Chiara is throwing a temper tantrum in her room. At first, Chiara seems like your typical bratty, entitled young actress—someone privileged who whines and protests to get her every whim catered. 

"I'm a prisoner in my own life!" Chiara yells melodramatically to both her yoga-loving, ultra-controlling stage mom Crystal (Heidi Dippold) and her strangely-paternal bodyguard Sandy (Jud Williford). Like Peter, Chiara, too, feels trapped in her room, but only because both her mom and watch-dog insist that she stay in, fearful for her safety after this repeat incident from the costumed wackadoo. 

"They're not lunatics," Chiara counters, "they're my fans!" 

That may be true, but Crystal is not about to let that earlier ruckus (and any other future dangerous run-ins) ruin her daughter's publicity-heavy appearance at ComicCon, which, ironically, she helps orchestrate to keep the fandom even more pumped, and her daughter even more highly sought-after for future big-ticket roles. Crystal is even gung-ho about her daughter's "publicity boyfriend" just to put her constantly top-of-mind with the press. 

And though Mom tries to play to her daughter's vanity during her protests, the tactic seems to only go so far. Looking at Crystal's overall appearance, however (you'd swear she's straight out of Real OC Housewives central casting from her expensive highlights down to her hip, chic wardrobe)... it's not hard to conclude why Chiara believes herself to be nothing more than just a "cash cow" for both her mom and the minions under their employ.

Wishing to be left alone, she screams at her bodyguard and mother to both leave, insinuating that the two adults in the room should go ahead and just hook up themselves (naturally, in the play's worst kept secret, we later learn exactly that... that Crystal and Sandy are indeed romantically involved, adding a somewhat after-thought layer to the bodyguard character). Sandy—perhaps as a show of machismo to his gal Crystal or to prove to himself of his future step-parent abilities—later goes to the "annex" to put a bit of fear into Peter, hoping to curb any further breaches into Chiara's personal space.

Let's just say things don't go so well.

Pretty soon, trouble in the hotel escalates exponentially to the point where Chiara comes awkwardly face-to-face with her "stalker" super-fan Peter in the very same room. For his part, Peter subsequently offers the young sci-fi starlet (who's still haunted by daddy-abandonment issues) not only some left-field clarity and insight about life but a brief (if turbulent) respite from reality—via, funny enough, a live, in-the-flesh recreation of a pivotal moment in her very own TV series.

Cleverly set-up, the play's title FUTURE THINKING is less a straight-on reference to the out-of-this world, futuristic settings of the kinds of sci-fi entertainment referenced in star Chiara's TV series, but rather more about what each character must seriously contend with at this very moment in their lives when the audience meets them... here, at a sort of crossroads in their lives. Beyond the present, what will everyone's next moves be after their fantasy-fueled present states blast away and bite the dust?

Combining Clark's wit-laced dialogue with Neugebauer's intriguing back-and-forth staging between a pair of hotel room sets effectively designed by Dane Laffrey and creatively lit by Lap Chi Chu, the play provides easily-drawn "future thinking" parallels of all the characters' lives, whether they are a superstar, a worker bee, or a socially-awkward cosplayer. FUTURE THINKING posits that most us create our own fantasies to escape our present or to feel hopeful for what lies ahead in the future; others, however, have become so numb to their hopeless present-day reality that fantasy seems to be the only answer for now and for future days to come. 

For many, the fandom that forms for "Odyssey"-type shows is pure escapism. In many instances, this hero-worship is akin to religion... of admiring things much bigger than they are, even if it is rooted in fantasy or unproven fiction. Who in the world wouldn't want some kind of super power—especially if it means transcending their current, more ordinary lives? It's certainly an extension of everyone's inherent need for future perseverance... finding a way to be okay, to evolve, and to rise up and improve from their current positions—be it one's career, one's status, one's wealth, one's relationships, or even one's overall happiness. All but one character seems to attempt to make future plans.

Overall, the cast assembled for the production are expectedly top-notch. 

As Peter, the deeply-fractured individual whose pain is only slightly alleviated by donning his detailed character costume (designed by Melissa Trn), veteran TV actor (and frequent SCR presence) Gross gives the play's most moving performance. Although instinct wants us, the audience, to laugh and snicker at this cosplaying middle-aged man whimpering before us, Gross allows us to pierce through his character's artificial coverings (and somewhat expected melodramatic backstory) and burrow into the soul of a man in understandable, palpable anguish. By contrast, the over-the-top exuberance of Gjokaj as ComicCon rent-a-cop Jim makes it super, super hard not to side with this goofy guy either. (On a side note—speaking of fangirling—my jaw dropped with glee at the 180-degree turn the actor takes in this role versus his role on Marvel's Agent Carter)

Vale and Dippold—as star Chiara and mom-ager Crystal, respectively—are believable as a bickering daughter and mother. Vale in particular shines in the second act as her character arc morphs from whiny girl to confidant woman. Williford turns in a hearty performance as Sandy, Chiara's bodyguard and Crystal's lover, in an otherwise underdeveloped character. It's understandable, however, considering the play is truly focused on the personal journeys of Chiara and Peter.

While it is certainly more challenging to care about any of the characters in the first act, they certainly earn our understanding and even empathy (well, most of them, anyway) by FUTURE THINKING's second, where the drama is heightened and expands on the tensions, while giving much better insight on each characters' inner (and not-so-hidden) foibles. The ending seems a bit rushed, yet ultimately bittersweet—a fitting punctuation to the events that transpires on this stage.

Assumably, as this feels like a definite work-in-progress (a very good one, to be honest), my future thinking for FUTURE THINKING is filled with much hope for a promising further evolution.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

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