Pretend I’ve just said something laborious about how we’re all addicted to our phones, now move past that. Dante or Die’s User Not Found comes to Fort Greene armed with several of these tiny screens, pairs of headphones, and an exacting look at this insular relationship. The connection with these devices is often the most intimate one we have. They are physically closer to our bodies than most people will ever get and they contain all our secrets. They are shields; they are masks. In a triangular cafe just east of BAM, director Daphna Attias, performer Terry O’Donovan, and writer Chris Goode conjure and amplify this singular relationship. Aided by Marmelo’s tech design, they bring the audience between the man and his phone and then plunge us deep into both.
User Not Found is essentially a solo play, performed with massive charm, heartbreak, and intelligence by Terry O’Donovan. I say “essentially” because everyone in the Greene Grape Annex becomes part of it, even as we do nothing but observe. O’Donovan begins at the end of a communal table, speaking quietly into his teacup, Norah Jones playing in the background. His voice is incredibly close, no matter his actual proximity, because the sound is transmitted via wireless headphones directly to our ears. We all have phones, too, that mirror O’Donovan’s screen. We become, then, multitudes of his mind and conscience. His voice in our ear is his own voice, speaking to himself. We are hearing his thoughts rattle in his head. He is “not nobody, just nobody in particular,” and, in so being, he is everybody immediately.
Terry, as the character is also called, is thrown into a tailspin when he receives a deluge of texts and emails (all of which we can see as they arrive) informing him that his former partner of nine years, Luka, has passed away. Luka left him six months earlier, so there’s a lot for Terry to wrestle with. He receives this news seated in the middle of a crowded café, not unlike the one where we’re sitting. It’s a place he can come and be anonymous and invisible, two things he needs desperately as the news descends, soaking his blue eyes and crumpling his posture. To add further madness, Luka has engaged a company that will lock his digital presence (social media profiles, emails, texts) and transfer the reins to his designated executor. Terry is, of course, that person, placing him in a difficult position. Does he dig through Luka’s 33,000 tweets or does he press a button that will erase it all instantaneously?
The bulk of User Not Found exits in Terry’s anguish over this complicated decision. He looks through photos of their relationship and remembers how much he loved Luka, but when scouring the thousands of tweets for any momentous marker of their time together, he comes up short. The play pokes at Terry’s insecurity: maybe Luka didn’t love him as much as he thought. Maybe the signs were there all along and he was too in love to see them. When he sees photos on Luka’s phone of him living the high life after their separation, he calls out the performativity, saying Luka would never have done the things he is doing in the photos. But he would and he did and that inflicts further doubt on Terry. Are we the person we are face-to-face or are we the person we are on our phones?
Terry says that the decision he has to make regarding Luka’s online presence “doesn’t feel like power, it feels like a peculiarly sharp weakness.” O’Donovan plays his namesake character suffused with this feeling. He’s almost scared of the phone, scared of what he’ll discover if he probes too deep. When we see Luka’s home screen, there’s a Grindr icon blaring, plain as day, but Terry ignores it as he opens Twitter to a Hunter Harris tweet and scrolls through Facebook. He doesn’t acknowledge the sex app, but its presence is a jab, a reminder of what happened after Terry.
Terry’s loneliness is blistering from the moment the play begins. He is clearly not over Luka and is now forced to confront something he is trying to make peace with in the worst possible way. As Terry is finally overcome with the weight of what he’s experiencing, O’Donovan sits on the barista counter and unleashes a primal scream that we do not hear through the headphones. In our ears there’s music, but in our eyes and in the periphery of our hearing there is an extremity of pain, the internal made external.
It’s a performance brimming with an open-hearted truthfulness, so much so that you feel like you have known this person for years. Between Goode’s writing and O’Donovan’s performance, it is a fully sketched person with multi-layered grief and humor and love. Holding his phone in your hand also makes it your decision. It feels like you have to help him get through it. It’s warm in his company, you don’t want to leave, you want to sit with him and listen to his gorgeous Irish voice, and cry.
Attias’ staging keeps O’Donovan moving through the café in ways that feel organic, a feat since there is no actual playing space, no audience/actor separation, and only one performer. It never feels repetitive. Subtle shifts in the lighting design by Zia Bergin-Holly transform the café into a mindscape or a body of water or whatever it needs to be whenever Terry thinks of it. There’s mood permeating the space, mutating through Terry’s own feelings.
At the end of the play, O’Donovan asks us to remove the headphones and he talks to us with his voice unamplified. It’s a weird phenomenon when all of these people, who have been there the whole time, suddenly appear in the space. You can hear them breathing and coughing, scooting chairs and rustling coats. It truly felt like we’d all been erased and subsumed into Terry’s thoughts – and his phone – and he has released us back into the world like Prospero at the end of The Tempest. Technology is a kind of magic, so is theatre. User Not Found employs the best of both.