Somewhere between the grimacing teeth and the rosy-cheeked smile on the emoji ranking scale sits a little semi-happy yellow face that sums up The Emoji Play, an amusing, watch-in-real time virtual play from local Irish arts organization Solas Nua.
The title is also represented by the black man at a computer emoji, the white man at a computer emoji, and the surgically masked face emoji in between.
Solas Nua arguably puts on the best site-specific theater in D.C., but carving out an online theatrical space proved more challenging. Kudos to artistic director Rex Daugherty and his team for coming up with a great idea and executing it with glitch-free technology (at least on the night I logged in). As funny as The Emoji Play can be, this virtual theater experience suffers from typewriter-era issues that could have been rectified by better writing, a stronger directorial concept, and more inclusive thinking about audience participation.
The clever premise—that all theatergoers on the call are students in a “digital languages class”—was devised by local actor/director/playwright Jeremy Keith Hunter. A different interactive Solas Nua play had been set to go live in July, but as anti-racism and Black Lives Matter demonstrations captured international attention in late spring and summer, Solas Nua opted to reboot. (Irish playwright John King remains at work on another project for Solas Nua.)
Solas Nua has long found creative ways to increase racial diversity in its offerings, including a phenomenal 2018 play about Frederick Douglass’ travels in Ireland, performed on a southwest D.C. pier. Last fall, Daugherty starred in a one-man show called The Smuggler, performed at area bars, about an Irish immigrant who gets mixed up in crimes targeting Latinx laborers. Multiple runs of The Smuggler sold-out, leaving Solas Nua with enough cash to commission and expand The Emoji Play.
Each night Emoji Play is “performed,” about 30 patrons log on to a Zoom call hosted by two actors, Da’Von Moody and Cormac Elliot, and an unseen tech guru, assistant producer Mekala Sridhar. Once (most) audience members are logged in, Moody joins the call, shirtless with a towel wrapped around his waist, and instructs us, his students, to turn off our cameras while he gets dressed.
The entire proceedings run less than an hour, but roughly every five minutes, some situation arose where it became painfully obvious that some audience members were struggling with unfamiliar technology. Ideally, participating in The Emoji Play requires two devices: One for the Zoom call and a second to run the messaging platform WhatsApp. In the WhatsApp chat function, class began with students sharing their names, preferred pronouns, and location. Moments later, Moody and his co-instructor, Elliot, asked them to recount their dating histories via GIFs.
“I wasn’t ready to be this vulnerable lol,” Jeffrey typed into the chat.
The Emoji Play is a relationship drama. Not long before he joins the call, Elliot was dumped by Ashton, his boyfriend of 3.5 years, and he’s rather distressed, divulging intimate details before Moody points out 30 people are watching.
We must have reached the point in the pandemic where the market for online tutors is scraping the bottom of the barrel, because these two young men are the most unprofessional, sexually inappropriate instructors on the internet. The given circumstances could be clearer, but apparently Elliot and Moody, who use their real names in the play, are recent graduates of George Washington University. Moody logs in from somewhere in the D.C. environs, while Elliot is an Irishman in London, or somewhere in “Whiteland, Brexit for everyone,” as his friend says.
Hunter has written these two characters some very funny lines about Braveheart, bowel movements and indigestible Popeyes chicken. But with so much oversharing involved, it would be wonderful to create a world where this digital language class felt quirky but possible: A fake university, on-screen graphics, actual teaching, faux-branding, etc. As is, the vibe is off-the-rails realism, complete with an instructor who just got out of the shower, and a prominent area arts patron who can’t figure out how to turn off a Zoom camera.
Adding to the awkwardness during my showing: A woman named Jennifer who typed “Where are the emojis?!” into the chat function, a woman named Jackie who couldn’t find the gifs, and an older pair of local theater donors who were befuddled by discussions of past relationships. “No ex. Married now 43 years,” one wrote.
Other patrons responded with applause gifs and lines of heart emojis.
The play’s most genuine moment came when Elliot was left alone supervising the class, Moody having exited to use the bathroom and let the “Popeyes run its course.” Earnestly, Elliot read off the latest of texts from Ashton, and implored the audience for relationship advice. Even on Zoom, that scenario was relatable for anyone who, in the past 15 years or so, has shared texts from a romantic partner with a friend in search of an empathetic listener. His pain felt real, while also demonstrating how easily a multi-year relationship can be reduced to lines of dialogue in the digital era.
Reducing an entire relationship drama into a Zoom call is much harder.
To Oct. 11. $20. solasnua.org.
An earlier version of this review misstated the roles of creative team members Navid Azeez, John King, and Mekala Sridhar.