Somewhere, deep within the sprawling mess of The Overview Effect lies the kernel of a great play. Unfortunately, in its current (and first) incarnation at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, Lynn Rosen’s new play is mired down by excessive length, unnecessary vignettes, and head-scratching constructs.
Which is a shame. Because there is a lot to love about this play. If only it weren’t so hard to parse it out.
I am a sucker for a good mystery and always up for mocking billionaires, so when I read that Rosen’s play centered on a young, female air-disaster expert who is pulled into a conspiracy involving two space tycoons based loosely on Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, I was all in.
In The Overview Effect, we follow Dylan Marks, who lost her parents in a plane crash and went on to become a smart but emotionally stunted scientist obsessed with air disasters and space exploration. Ryker, a mad genius billionaire who is convinced he can save humanity by moving us all to Mars, hires Dylan after an unmanned rocket designed by his company explodes on takeoff. Unable to fathom that the accident was his own fault, Ryker suspects sabotage and hires Dylan to investigate his enemies, who include his flamboyant ex-wife and fellow billionaire space explorer Jim Jefferson.
Rosen has created an impressive entourage of characters in this play, and the cast along with director Courtney Sale, does an exemplary job of bringing them to life. Dylan is the heart of the play and Sofia Jean Gomez plays her with an endearing mixture of naivete and sass.
The competing space tycoons offer a fun insight into the minds of the modern-day billionaires who are increasingly shaping the world we live in, especially the character of Ryker, played by Triney Sandoval as an explosive egomaniac who might just be smart enough to pull off the ludicrous experiments he pours so much money into. Jefferson, in a more subdued performance by Chris Thorn, is Ryker’s equal in intelligence but his opposite in demeanor, quiet and suffering a recent loss that leaves him reeling.
But the richness of these characters was diminished by a script that ping-pongs between too many extraneous scenes: Dylan having a drink with Ryker’s brother, Dylan listening to the narrator of a podcast, Dylan being followed by two faceless astronauts who appear at random times throughout the show. Also extraneous were the scenes involving Ryker’s ex-wife Layla (Ellis Greer), a flamboyant and gorgeous woman who made a name for herself post-divorce by writing space novels in which her ex-husband suffers a myriad of romantic disasters. The conceit of the character was fun — Layla swoops in throughout the play to read excerpts from novels that feel like Harlequin Romance novels set in outer space — but we didn’t need to hear quite so many tales of space romance.
Stripping these secondary elements from the show would have let its strongest parts stand on their own, namely Dylan’s investigation into the rocket explosion and the subsequent emotional growth experienced by her, Ryker, and Jefferson. Even Pizza Guy (a lively Julian Remulla), who only appeared in a few scenes, was a fun and endearing character I would have loved to get to know better.
Rosen writes for television and as I watched The Overview Effect I kept thinking how great these characters would be in a Netflix series where their eccentricities and personal growth could be explored without the distraction of spacewalkers and stage antics. It felt that in trying to be clever and theatrical, especially through the insertion of a rock song late in the show, the show became a parody of itself.
In its current iteration, much of the show’s humor was lost on people who were busy trying to figure out what they were watching. Jokes were met with tepid laughter and the show’s poignant moments were lost in a similar haze of confusion. The audience was noticeably muted as it filed out after the too-long show.
The Overview Effect plays at the Frank Center, one of the largest venues at Shepherd University, and considerable care was taken with the design elements. Jesse Dreikosen’s set design allows movement to shift easily from living spaces to subterranean cave scenes evoking the surface of Mars. Tennessee Dixon’s projections played a big part in the storytelling and helped bring the show to life.
Shave a good 30 minutes off the show and you may have a winner here. Even though I was squirming in my seat through a lot of the play, days later, I still find myself thinking fondly about Dylan, Ryker, Jim, and Pizza Guy. I would love to have the opportunity to get to know them better. Without all the distractions.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Overview Effect plays through July 30, 2023, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing at the Frank Center, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV, in repertory with four other CATF plays. See the CATF website (catf.org/2023-schedule) for performance dates and times. Purchase tickets ($70 regular, $60 senior) at catf.org/buy-tickets or through the box office, firstname.lastname@example.org or 681-240-2283.
COVID Safety: There are two mask-required performances (July 14 at 6 pm and
July 20 at 7 pm); otherwise, masks are optional.