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Theatre in Review: Steve: A Docu-Musical (The New York Neo-Futurists/4th Street Theatre)

Colin Summers. Photo: Hunter Canning

The digital age facilitates a bizarre songwriting collaboration in Steve: A Docu-Musical. Colin Summers, a lanky, paper-thin charmer with floppy hair, a mustache from the '70s, and a slightly wicked gleam in his eye, narrates this strange tale of our times, telling how he and his roommate, Andrew Eckel, found themselves making music with Steve, a middle-aged Australian whom they have never seen or spoken to directly, and about whom they know...nothing.

A few years ago, Summers says, he and Eckel were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and were looking for a way to "quit our jobs as cashiers at the Harvest Co-op Market." They cooked up PoetrytoMusic.com, a web venture in which users would submit lyrics that the two young men would set to music, for a fee ranging between 30 and 60 dollars. The project was met with a stunning lack of interest until they heard from Steve, who "paid for six songs in the first six days." Such interest was gratifying, but it was only a preview of what was to come; Summers soon had to set up a separate email address for Steve's inquiries alone "As of showtime tonight," he adds, "I've got 8,000 emails in that account. About 100 emails shy of the entirety of my other personal email account, with which I communicate with everybody else I know."

As time goes by, oddball bits of information are dropped: that Steve is the author of books titled How to Fail at College and How to Make a Million Dollars Before Your [sic] Thirty; that he wanted to be a journalist, but ended up a clerk for Queensland Railways; that one of his songs has 23 views on YouTube; that his mother, whom he calls "Judge Judy," has nothing but scathing opinions to offer about his songs; and that "he has profiles all over the Internet and everyone has a different stock photo." Steve also has his own unique way of putting things: Praising one of Summers' melodies, he says, "Put Colin in jail. This song is too good." And there are such apropos-of-nothing comments like "One of my friends killed himself after he read my book. You can imagine how discouraging that was for me."

Calling Steve "an artist without a paintbrush," Summers becomes oddly enchanted with his mysterious acquaintance, even as he struggles to keep up with the sheer amount of his correspondence. We hear examples of their collaboration, including "Windows to the World," which Summers describes as Steve's "love letter to Microsoft Windows," and "TrickorTreat," with nearly impenetrable lyrics that are meant to be accompanied by a chorus of "spooky sounds" from the audience. Before long, you could say Summers has become devoted to the Tao of Steve: Reading an incomprehensible passage from How to Make a Million Dollars...., he adds, "Two years ago when I read that I all but dismissed it. But now when I read it I think it's brilliant. Not only do I get it, but I sometimes find myself borrowing his logic and thinking with his voice." Indeed, he says, "I find myself talking about him on first dates."

Whether you are equally entranced or whether you find Steve: A Docu-Musical to be an evening of limited appeal will depend on your appetite for a text so heavily loaded with non sequiturs and off-the-wall comments. Many in my audience were audibly taken with it all, enthusiastically joining in on the musical numbers when asked. I was initially amused but found that 70 minutes was a little too much time to spend in Steve's world, especially since the Colin - Steve relationship never changes. The nutty details pile up, without substantially changing either of them. And when we finally get some hard information about Steve, the news isn't surprising, but it is sad and it casts a faintly exploitative pall over the entire enterprise.

Still, Nessa Norich's direction maintains an easy, casual atmosphere throughout, and the design -- set by Joey Rizzolo, lighting by Sarah Livant, and projections by Gene Kogan -- is perfectly solid. And the piece certainly captures the eerily disembodied way we communicate with others in the age of social media. By the way, Steve knows all about this show and, at his request, Summers records the audience's applause with his cellphone camera and sends it along. By the end of evening, you could say that we're all friends of Steve. -- David Barbour

(13 August 2015)

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