The weirdly named play Two Point Oh at the Detroit Repertory Theatre (until May 29) was a trip in more ways than one. It meant my leaving Ann Arbor’s fabled “28 square miles” to drive into the “real world,” sad, old Detroit. A small building in a wasteland near the Lodge/Davison intersection, the Rep has a long, proud history as a professional, socially conscious theater, the first in Michigan to do race-blind casting. It’s been at its current location since 1963, having survived the ’67 riots and the city’s economic decline. There’s a bar in the lobby, and, the day I went, a church fundraiser that attracted a crowd of smartly dressed older black women (one in a wide pink satiny hat), nibbling cake off paper plates.
The Rep does a lot of black-themed, realistic dramas (the preceding production was A Song for Coretta), so Two Point Oh seemed, at first, a wacky anomaly. The two leads, husband and wife, are black, but race plays no part in the plot: billionaire software mogul Elliot Leeds (Monrico Ward) dies in a plane crash, only to stun his grieving wife Melanie (Satori Shakoor) by reappearing on her computer monitor (a TV screen placed center stage). He cheerily explains that, by recording thousands of hours of information, he has essentially made a cyber copy of himself. Now, they can happily continue their marriage at the gentle pace impossible in his frantic, physical existence, where she never saw enough of him. Now he has time to banter with her and read books aloud. His body may be missing but he’s there in spirit…or whatever.
Playwright Jeffrey Jackson has given a high-tech twist to a trope at least as old as Hamlet’s ghost: an otherworldly being butting into the lives of mere morals. If it’s disconcerting at first to view Two Point Oh‘s principal actor on screen, the story, with subsequent sub-plots, soon resumes ascendancy. Bemused at first by her “virtual” husband, Melanie starts to like the idea, but things get complicated when Leeds’ business partner, Ben Robbins (Mark Barrera), lets Melanie know he’s there to fulfill the needs that her husband no longer can.
Playwright Jackson takes gleeful digs at the media through two characters: over-the-top TV commentator Jerry Gold (Mark Halpin), and Leeds’s successor at (chuckle alert) Paradigm Software, a corporate queen played by Maggie Patton who frantically works at damage control once word gets out about Leeds’ life-in-death (or is it the other way around?)
All the players are talented, but Ward, as Leeds, is a standout; he projects a sinister charisma, grinning away at his wife and ex-partner as though he knows he’s got them trapped. And does he? Entertaining as the play is, its real strength may come from the philosophical questions it leaves in its wake. What makes someone “real?” Is technology bringing us closer together or just feeding our fantasies of closeness? How far are we from the dystopian fictions of Brave New World and 1984? And so forth.
As an audience member, I was in a minority: about 80 percent of the audience was African American, and many, if not most, were over 60, which I think says something about the loyalty people who didn’t flee Detroit feel about the theater that also stayed. I was a little startled, when some of the usual four-letter words were bantered, to hear some of the older people giggling nervously, as if something impolite was happening. Afterwards, an 83-year-old Detroit friend asked me if all the swear words were “necessary.” Now, that’s another interesting philosophical question.
p.s. the program explains that “Two Point Oh” is “loosely associated with the term Web 2.0 . . .and refers in broad terms to the exploration of the interactive capabilities of the internet.” It’s still a crummy title.