By Stanford Friedman

The ancient myth of Pandora’s box explains how all things evil came into the world when a lid was opened out of curiosity. S. Asher Gelman offers a futuristic twist on the tale with his thought-provoking, at times exhausting, workout of a drama, Scarlett Dreams. The box, in this case, is a gleaming white cube which contains a piece of technology that will bring a multiverse of hurt to those who come near it. And, as it was with Pandora, there will also be a small ray of hope left behind.

The play revolves around the desires of four characters, only three of whom are human. Kevin (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) is a down on his luck playwright who has taken to snacking, vaping and scrolling through social media rather than writing a follow-up to his one Off-Broadway hit. Milo (Borris Anthony York) is Kevin’s husband. He splits his time between running a fitness studio called WholeBody and developing an exercise app called RealFit (Gelman has a thing for portmanteaus.). Milo’s workaholic sister, Liza (Brittany Bellizeare), is also his partner in developing the app and it is she who will open a box in Kevin and Milo’s apartment that will soon enough lead the trio down a very bad path.

Inside the box is the latest invention from the tech company OmniCorp. It’s a virtual reality headset called OmniVision. Milo and Liza,we learn, have developed a VR version of their app and have decided that Kevin would be the perfect Beta tester. Slipping on the headset, Kevin, and the audience, are transported into an exercise space that would make Peloton green with envy. Inside this virtual space, Kevin meets his fitness trainer, a perky and seemingly kind bit of artificial intelligence who goes by the name of Scarlett (actor and professional fitness trainer, Caroline Lellouche).

Soon enough, Kevin grows addicted to RealFit and is exercising alongside Scarlett like a fiend, growing more buff by the minute. Directing his own play, Gelman serves up an overly-long workout montage, but thanks to Keenan-Bolger, who gives extra meaning to the phrase “muscular performance,” Kevin transforms into what surely must be the most ripped writer to ever grace a stage. 

As RealFit is released into the world, evolving into something beyond just an exercise app, the play turns philosophical, exploring topics like the nature of memory, the basis for creating artworks, and the question of whether something can be “real” if it does not exist in a physical world. Highlighting the differences between Scarlett’s computerized self and Kevin’s merely human brain, she tells him, “When you speak, I wait eternities between each syllable, processing the infinite permutations of potential responses.”  As Scarlett completes her transformation of Kevin and unleashes questionable new features to RealFit’s ever-growing subscriber base, we are left to wonder: When a fitness trainer grows omnipotent, can a dystopian society be far behind?

Complicating the flow of the play, there are several head-scratching moments that distract from the work’s intriguing crisis of conscience. Mentioned once, and then forgotten, is Kevin’s penchant for hooking up with other men, with which Milo seemingly has no problem. Equally disruptive is a stunning special effect, for no apparent reason, that finds Scarlett bursting out of a refrigerator like an ice queen and holding for applause till the audience submits. And, most unsettling, there is what one would call the principle of Chekov’s door, which states that if an apartment door is hard to open in Scene One, and subsequently hard to open in nearly every other scene, it will lead to a cataclysmic door-related event by evening’s end. 

Lellouche manages to find some subtle moments as Scarlett, presenting a cool facade that makes her all the more frightening. In his Off-Broadway debut, York brings a sensitivity to Milo that plays well against Bellizeare’s solid performance as the sometimes angry, sometimes curt Liza. Meanwhile, the tech team nearly steals the show with lighting, sound and projection design that are otherworldly.

 

Scarlett Dreams – Written and directed by S. Asher Gelman.

WITH: Brittany Bellizeare (Liza), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Kevin), Caroline Lellouche (Scarlett) and Borris Anthony York (Milo).

Set design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, Emily Rebholz (costume design), Jamie Roderick (lighting design), Brian Pacelli (projection design), Alex Mackyol (sound design) and Brendan McCann (properties design). Midnight Theatricals rGreenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow St., https://www.scarlettdreamsplay.com. Through May 26. Running time: 100 minutes.