Brain on the Wire


Show #26: Wirehead, SF Playhouse, March 19.

Craig Marker, Lauren Grace, Madeline H. D. Brown and Gabriel Marin in Wirehead. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Sam Hurwitt

One thing I appreciate about SF Playhouse is its eclectic mix of challenging dramas, comedies and musicals, “classic” crowd-pleasers and macabre, often bloody genre pieces. Matthew Benjamin and Logan Brown’s Wirehead falls into the latter category.

Set in a near future, the pitch-black comedy takes place in a near future in which a new procedure is invented to provide mental upgrades, a sort of brain steroid that makes them much smarter than before. The science of it is a little confusing; it’s done by injecting a fluid, but the subject wind up with literal wires inside his or her ear. Not everyone is eligible for the procedure because it doesn’t agree with some people’s systems, making for an automatic underclass.

Our protagonists are two office workers who are worried that they won’t be able to compete with people who have undergone the procedure. If they were ever named in conversation I must have missed it, but the program calls them Destry and Adams.

Gabe Marin’s dyspeptic Destry is particularly nervous about the new technology while Craig Marker’s Adams is more easygoing—at least at first, because when things start to go bad, which is early and often (I did say “bloody,” after all), he really starts to freak out. Adams is more torn on the subject, because his fiancee plans to get the upgrade and wants him to as well. An everyman type, he becomes our point-of-view character, dragged along for the ride as Destry becomes more fanatical in anti-wirehead activities. One irony is that both already have technology in their heads—their cell phones are implanted into their teeth.

The performances are strong throughout company cofounder and producing director Susi Damilano’s fast-paced production. Madeline H.D Brown is dynamic as Destry’s girlfriend Monyca, a new agey fashion designer and self-styled iconoclast who takes to the luddite cause with cheery relish. Lauren Grace is forbiddingly stuck up as Adams’s English-accented fiancée Laura, who comes from money and whom he’s petrified of disappointing in any way. (Laura also has an affectation of pronouncing “amahzing” like no culture anywhere ever has.)

Although we meet other characters before and after their alterations, the only sense we get of wireheads really being substantially different from regular humans is through a couple of characters portrayed memorably by Cole Alexander Smith. First is a coworker of Destry and Adams named Hamilton, called Hammy much to his dismay, an early adopter who was previously kind of a lunkhead and is now sweaty, hyperactive and blissed out, bursting with ideas he keeps jotting down on a little pad of paper. Later on Smith shows up as Jeremiah, a game show prodigy who’s eerily unflappable under pressure.

Eli Magid provides stylish but not futuristic costumes in a palette of black and white and grays. Artistic director Bill English’s versatile set is all curved metallic walls like some kind of theme bar, and in a window up high is Scott Coopwood as an omnipresent DJ, a radio shock jock called Rip the Nip. People call in to his show to express their opinions about the mental upgrades, to which he invariably responds with condescending mockery. Coopwood plays him well, but he’s an obnoxious character who isn’t any less irritating because he’s seemingly supposed to be irritating.

Despite the sci-fi setup, the script doesn’t dwell much on the finer points of its premise. The play has a jolly old time discussing the social implications of the new technology without explicating what it actually is or how it does what it does. The timeframe of the play is seemingly greatly accelerated, with amazing technological and personal advances taking place in the space of days or hours. There are occasional false notes such as a late-breaking running gag about homoerotic slips that seems to come out of nowhere and then go nowhere. You can see some of the twists coming a ways away, but it’s entertaining enough that the last thing you want to do is overthink it.  After all, that’s what they would do.

Through April 23
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

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