Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Big Data
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Bees & Honey and Freda Payne: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald

BD Wong, Michael Phillis, and Gabriel Brown
Photo by Kevin Berne
"I'm distracted." This line–and several variations of it–pervade the world premiere production of an American Conservatory Theater commissioned new play by Kate Attwell, Big Data, which opened this week at ACT's Toni Rembe Theater. For its characters–Max (Jomar Tagatac), his partner Lucy (Rosie Hallett), Sam (Gabriel Brown) and his husband Timmy (Michael Phillis), and Lucy's and Sam's parents, Joe (Harold Surratt) and Didi (Julia McNeal) all suffer from that all too common addiction of our age: smartphone/internet dependence disorder.

The term "clickbait" has its origins in animal research, referring to the treat given to mice or other animals as a reward for clicking on whatever it is the researchers want them to click. It has since evolved to refer to headlines or invitations that persuade us to click on a link on our phones or on a web page. Playwright Attwell lets us know right from the start of the show that Big Data is all about the clicks. She (and director Pam McKinnon) have placed a large (yet oddly antique-looking) television at stage left. On its screen appear the words "Press Play," followed by the international symbol for "play," a triangle turned 90 degrees. Soon after, the large projection screen up stage (for the first act, the entire set, by Tanya Orellana, feels like the inside of a screen) fills with admonitions to press play. Once an audience member summons the courage to make their way on stage to perform the required action, the show begins, and the screen fills with an image of pigeons pecking at buttons to receive a food pellet. Soon after, M (BD Wong) appears on screen–ostensibly a scientist, dressed in a plaid suit, smoking a cigarette–and speaks proudly of how his work is manipulating the pigeons to do his bidding: "We begin to nudge the birds' behavior."

He then appears onstage, making his entrance through a trap door, as though he's been exploring the world through "a series of tubes" (to quote the late Ted Stevens, senator from Alaska, who used the term to describe the internet) and ends up in Max and Lucy's apartment, where he has evidently simply knocked on the door and is allowed entry. The two have an oddly disjointed conversation in which M asks–among other things–to take a shower, and grills Max, discovering he is a writer. What does he write? Content. "Stuff for people to click on," Max tells him.

In the next scene, Timmy and Sam are getting ready for work, but looking online (Grindr?) they discover someone seeking a three-way with them. He can be there in five minutes, so they figure they have time for a quickie. And who shows up at their door? M, who not only takes charge of the situation, but also seems to have quite a bit of inside knowledge about the pair. Is he an avatar of theirs? (In the first scene, M and Max wear identical, distinctive socks, indicating there is some connection between them.)

M is sometimes part of scenes where he is unseen by the other characters onstage, and there are moments when the video screen upstage displays images of the onstage actions captured by a multitude of cameras inside the Toni Rembe Theater, reinforcing the sense of constant monitoring. When Timmy and Sam begin to argue, Timmy claims that Sam is planning to move out, despite Sam's protestations that he has no such plans. "Whether or not you think you're moving out, you're moving out." This is not stated as an ultimatum from Timmy, but rather as an understanding that he has come to, based on some secret information. It immediately put me in mind of the story of a father who complained to Target that it was sending his daughter coupons for cribs and baby clothes while she was still in high school. Turns out the daughter was pregnant, something Target learned by the items she had purchased–which did not include a pregnancy test.

Jump to act two, when Sam and Lucy and their respective partners are invited to Joe and Didi's for a lunch. Tired of being constantly monitored by big data (a Silicon Valley term that emerged in the 2000s to describe data mining efforts), they have trashed all their electronics (encased them in concrete in the garden actually) and reverted to growing their own food rather than letting Big Grocery know what they are buying.

Spoiler alert–skip this paragraph if you don't want to potentially learn Joe and Didi's solution to ending the surveillance. For Joe and Didi are beyond tired of having coupons sent to them that are "the exact right coupons," so tired that they are prepared to opt out in a very big way. If you are familiar with Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Night, Mother, you'll understand why I feel Big Data could have been called Logging off, Kids.

Big Data may not be for everyone. You will often find yourself confused, and trying to grok exactly what Attwell is trying to say. But it's a play that rewards thoughtfulness and attention. If you can make it through the distractions, it will compensate you richly. Something very little "clickbait" ever does.

Big Data runs through March 10, 2024, at American Conservatory Theater, Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00p.m.. Tickets (ranging from $25-$130) and more information are available at