“We’ve Come to Believe,” the first production of this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre, asks audiences to “consider the raw power of groupthink.” And while I watched this year’s ensemble performance by the current cohort of the Actors Theater Professional Training Company, a bit of a recent article by the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson came to mind:
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something.
And most of us aren’t doing it alone. If you were to ask Corporate America – the church many of us worship at 40 hours a week – to define groupthink, you’d probably get something like “collaborative worship.” Like Thompson, the three playwrights behind “We’ve Come to Believe,” Kara Lee Corthron, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos, have noticed how work has become an intrinsic part of our identities. They begin their 90-minute or so run of the Bingham Theater with recitation of the kind of cult-ish language that dominates resumes, LinkedIn profiles and job descriptions, chanting over and over again, “We have a purpose.”
The play doesn’t ever lose sight of its purpose, but “groupthink” may be too broad a topic to take on in its entirety. Ideas are touched on lightly before racing, literally, in glow-in-the-dark sneakers, off to the next segment. There’s cult leaders, there’s aliens, there’s witch hunts and motivational speakers – Oh, my!
Vignettes like what make up much of “We’ve Come to Believe” are traditionally the format for the Professional Training Company’s annual production, since that piece is always written by several playwrights and must make use of a large cast of actors. The format wasn’t an issue for “Believe’s” comedic bits, such as the follower who has a change of heart trying to leave the flock or the highly charismatic motivational speaker with a penchant for poorly-composed sentences. And scenes that were mostly choreography weren’t harmed by the blitzy pace either.
Yet, for the portions with a serious tone, additional time would have allowed for a more nuanced take. For example, there’s a scene where several actors are representing various people misbehaving on social media. The simple narrative seems to be that we let people on the internet get the best of us when we lose our tempers.
But here, “Believe” missed an opportunity to unpack what it means that we suddenly know so much more about what people around us think and feel about contentious issues. Or what it’s like for someone who’s marginalized to feel like they can finally force someone to hear them. Or, in lieu of complicating what we think we know, the play could have offered some thoughts on where we go next as our relationship with social media evolves.
What I’ve come to believe is that the best way to enjoy this play is like a Magic Eye puzzle: just relax your focus and wait for what the swirls of comedy, choreography and cultural commentary have to reveal.
Minda Honey is on Twitter @mindahoney and Facebook at “Ask Minda Honey.”