Fort Worth — Who can capture the culture (still semi-alien to us, the untrustworthy over-30s) of social media? Not just social media as part of our lives, we all know about that…but social media as the point of life? Erik Forrest Jackson’s Like a Billion Likes, a world premiere for Stage West, takes a sharply observed stab at doing just that, earning some big laughs at the start—and then edging into complex and darkly comic territory with this tale of a high school girl obsessed with getting the number of “clicks” she needs to go from zero to hero.
Teens and millennials will nod in recognition; the rest of us might be thinking how exhausting it must be to be that “on” all the time, that fearful of disappearing if you’re not getting, like…likes.
And perhaps that’s one of the play’s points—that most of us in the audience are outsiders, remarkably clueless about this newly hatched social order. “How’m I supposed to reach you?” one teen character asks another whose phone has been confiscated as punishment. “I have no earthly idea,” she answers.
Misty Riggs (Delaney Milbourn) is the new girl in town…again. She lives with her aunt, bouncing along with her from bad job to bad job around the country. Misty has found a friend, Alix (Mikaela Krantz), at her new school—and we get the feeling that’s something she hasn’t always been able to count on in her journeying.
“Aren’t you tired of being nobody?” Misty asks Alix. “We’re practically ghosts. We don’t have money. We’re not popular.” Misty wants to “matter”—and to her, that means making a splash on social media. She needs a cause, and decides to make videos supporting “gays” in general, and skirt-wearing fellow student Jacey (Evan Michael Woods) in particular, whether he wants her help.
Also drawn into Misty’s wobbly orbit are the two adults of the piece, large-and-in-charge (he thinks) principal Perry Segars (Aaron Roberts), and sensible-seeming school counselor Colleen Benson (Dana Schultes), Alix’s mother. Misty doesn’t seem like a game changer—she’s woefully, laughably ignorant and awkward—but all these characters’ lives will be different because they know her.
Director Garret Storms keeps a sense of flow and energy going both in performance and staging—actors lift, slide and twirl the furnishings to create the next scene in a twinkling. Seancolin Hankins’ set design catches the eye with its brick walls and steel columns, a coolly abstract notion (Luke Atkison’s shadowed lighting adds to the effect) until we blink twice and realize OMG, it’s a classic high school hallway—something alien and familiar all at once, like double vision. The brick walls become a perfect surface for Nate Davis’ bright-colored projections, an ever-shifting flow of Emojis commenting, like sound designer Ryan Swift Joyner’s apt music choices, on the action of the play. Victor Newman Brockwell’s costuming is nicely character-revealing, especially in his respectful attention to Jacey’s quirky wardrobe choices.
Jackson’s sharp dialogue supports performances that feel emotionally true, though it can be hard to read the shifting feelings camouflaged by these teenagers’ overwhelming desire to seem cool and detached. They are trying hard not to reveal just how invested they are in Every Single Moment of their lives. Reacting to a crucial event late in the play, Misty says in a near monotone, “What a mess.” But in Milbourn’s performance, body language tells more. Misty never looks at ease with herself or the world as she twists, shrugs, flails her hands—never, it seems, landing in a safe and quiet place.
The trio of teen characters play an interesting game of round-robin. Milbourn and Krantz add an intriguing prickliness to the Misty and Alix relationship. They’re friends, but don’t know that much about each another after only a few months of school—and their mutual loyalty hasn’t been tested. Misty is a bit juvenile for her age; Alix feels more mature, and seems amused by Misty’s educational gaps. (Misty thinks Malcolm X is a rapper.) Alix clicks with Woods’ thoughtful, gently sarcastic Jacey, a guy with such inner balance he doesn’t need Facebook…or so he says. Misty watches them warily, not sure she’s the center of this story any more. How can she “make her mark”?
Unlike the teens, the two grownups are open books: anxious, angry, self-doubting, lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. Roberts plays Segars (who might need reporting to the #MeToo movement) with just the right mix of small-town smarm and ill-concealed id; Schultes is touching and funny as the wife/mom/counselor trying, with plenty of mis-steps, to make things right again for herself and the people she cares for—especially the hyper-aware Alix.
Misty and the others achieve a kind of fame, though they all pay a price, and Jackson’s ending is both intense and strangely unsettling. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since his central character Misty (even when she’s offstage for an odd length of time during this 90-minute play) remains an uncomfortable presence from start to finish. She’s both victim and bully: an unfilled soul trying to scrabble a self together, yes, but her rather blank, wide-eyed stare also reveals a certain lack of human feeling. She’ll use the people around her to get what she wants.
And come fire and fury, Misty wants to go viral.
Jackson, a North Texas native (from Parker) who is now New York-based, has one of those “how does he do it all?” profiles [look for an interview with Jackson coming up on TheaterJones]. He’s a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, magazine editor and musical bookwriter. His musical about singer Neil Sedaka, Breaking Up is Hard to Do (co-written with Ben Winters), has been performed around the world. Like a Billion Likes won the Southwest Playwriting Contest and was a finalist at the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Stage West’s vivid first production of Likes is a good start for a play that’s not hard to like.
It should be snapped up by companies around the country.