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Theater Review

Charlie Varon's 'FWD: Life Gone Viral:' RE: When Big Things Happen to Little People

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In FWD: Life Gone Viral, two of the four characters in this two-actor play are tiny flies on the wall -- spying on their exes. That is, they are spying through the lens of minute, unarmed drones that appear, to the unassuming eye, to be flies on the wall.

Ridiculous you may say. But wait -- in our age of nanotechnology and compromised standards of privacy, such a thing is already out there. On the other hand, yes, its implausible because this premise is put forth by Charlie Varon, the satirist-monologist who made a name for himself in 1995 with Rush Limbaugh in Night School.

Rush Limbaugh follows the conservative radio host as he goes undercover as a liberal wacko in Birkenstocks, falls in love with a femi-nazi and performs Shakespeare in the park.

That cockamamie concoction was set in the near future. FWD: Life Gone Viral is set in the here and now -- an especially interesting time because it is midway between past and future. Here and now is where middle age adults stumble forward, saying, "What the heck is this you tube? Why would private citizens want to publicize their thoughts, philosophies, grievances, revenges and funny pets?" Some of them are very uncomfortable with such exhibitionism, while others compulsively hit "refresh" to see how many new views they have received.

Under David Ford's direction, FWD: Life Gone Viral is keenly observed and vastly appealing and much more substantial than the "it's funny because it's true" brand of humor. Like the best comic writers, Charlie Varon, and co-writers Jeri Lynn Cohen and David Ford, are wise cultural analysts. Varon's character Adam breaks it down to YouTube Newbie, Dr. Lillian Steinberg. Adam points out that Oprah is the mother of YouTube, ushering a society that has given up our secrets. He eloquently argues that YouTube broadcasters have a far greater reach, and potential significance, than did Aristotle. He articulates that broadcasting yourself (the YouTube motto) has supplanted broadcasting the truth. And that The Truth has been replaced by A Truth.

Yes, much of this has been said before. (See Stephen Colbert's discussion of Wikiality: Truth by Consensus). But not in the context of a play about love and death and relationships. The play spoofs cultural trends, but (mostly) the characters are not caricatures.

As Adam and his doctor discuss death, dying, end-of-life philosophies and social media self-promotion, what transpires is a surprisingly touching, intelligent and very honest discourse that is much meatier than a mere satire about these crazy high-tech times we live in.

Although he had thought he was dying, Adam's medical files had been mixed up and he does not, in fact, have pancreatic cancer. When he thought he was dying, Adam had taken comfort in a YouTube video that expresses that dying is a courageous journey of enlightenment and that impending death is a beautiful experience. Lo and behold, the video was made by Dr. Steinberg's ex-husband, an unfaithful insincere schmuck. And, in a world where good things happen to bad people, this video has gone viral; its been embraced by multitudes and has earned Donald rock star guru fame and money.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is wonderful as Dr. Lillian Steinberg, a smart, sharp physician, who is bewildered and enraged that her ex-husband's video has gone viral. She tentatively weighs her professional reputation against her desire to expose her ex-husband for the fraud he is. Cohen's Lillian is an arrestingly real person who reveals thoughtfulness and vulnerability as she ventures into the new terrains of romance and internet fame.

Adam whips out his iPhone to video-tape Lillian's response to her ex-husband's sermon, "Death," she says, "is not noble, not heroic, not peaceful." Above them, on the wall, Donald and Ellen, Adam's ex-wife, spy, scoff and ridicule.

As the brash, abrasive and flagrantly Jewish Ellen, Cohen is marvelously entertaining with her mocking, running commentary. As Donald, Varon is an irritating blowhard.

Among the four of them, YouTube videos are made and volleyed -- racking up views and ratings and comments and thumbs up.

FWD: Life Gone Viral runs through June 10, 2012 at The Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit


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