The internet is breaking your brain. This musical is here to help

I walk in and see a woman cleaning up crumpled numbered cards and colorful plastic chips. My eyes pass over an old coffee maker and a handful of flyers to a sign: A bingo game has just ended, and something called “Friends of Saul” is scheduled to start soon. A handful of people, of varying ages and degrees of friendliness, sit down in folding chairs arranged in a circle.

Then the woman pulls out a pitch pipe and blows a note. The group sings together, their voices dreamlike and idyllic. But the peaceful feeling is fleeting.

“There is a monster,” they announce. “And I am a monster.”

Welcome to “Octet,” the Dave Malloy musical that acutely captures a life lived Too Online. Making its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through May 29, the production doubles as a support group for self-identified internet addicts, disclosing their demons in haunting eight-part harmonies: “I was OK once, I can be OK again.”

Numerous musicals have addressed the web: commenting on specific platforms’ uses (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Public Domain”), using it to drive major or minor plots (“Mean Girls,” “The Prom”), even anthropomorphizing its parts into characters (“Emojiland,” “Be More Chill”).

But “Octet” manages to capture a life lived Too Online in a way that no stage show has before now. Without romanticizing its prospects, satirizing its users or villainizing its makers, the show is an honest, nuanced exploration of how much of our daily lives are now lived on the internet — and how our institutions, our social norms and our very brains are paying for it.

After the meeting’s eight obsessives read the support group’s guiding principles aloud — “Every second I am unaware of time is a second that I am giving over to death” — they take center stage one by one to introduce themselves and how they’re faring against their respective temptations. “Octet” even adopts a structure that might be called Musical Theater as Instagram Story: Each character’s song soothes you for only for a moment, before it disappears.

Jessica (Margo Seibert) confesses that, after starring in an infamous “white woman goes crazy” video and becoming Twitter’s Main Character of the day, she compulsively reads every negative comment about herself and argues with strangers and bots. Though the others accompany her vocally, they don’t necessarily appear empathetic; after all, Jessica’s demographic usually gets canceled for doing a racism.

Henry (Alex Gibson) reveals that he’s addicted to Candy Crush Saga — a game, I admit, that I’ve spent a considerable amount of money to level up on in my lifetime. With funny lyrics, energetic movements and a very catchy hook, Henry sings of how happy he is while crushing candy, all day, every day, entire weekends at a time. Before the song ends, though, it swerves — Henry laments, “I suspect deep down, I don’t care if I die / How else could I be wasting so much time on this sweet fluorescent smiling brain rot?”

Paula (Isabel Santiago), the leader of the meeting, sings an exhausted plea for her husband, who turns his back to her each night for another activity I know all too well — doomscrolling.

“A stale, pale glow lighting up the sheets,” she cries out. “Tragedies, catastrophes, nightmares, horrors, heartbreaks, extremes, all these suffering souls that you cannot control — and you invite them all in our bed?”

The group then launches into a montage of sorts about the internet’s unofficial communication rules: the appropriate moment to post lighthearted content amid a tragedy, the performative urgency of a threaded argument, the proper format to publish an opinion online. “Not all caps, though sometimes that can feel good,” they sing. “Lowercase and no punctuation, that means you feel it in your soul.”

I watch this section through my fingers, screaming internally about how many of these patterns I’ve adopted without a second thought. I’m not that online — my Instagram is private, my Facebook feed is sparse, my Snapchat app was automatically uninstalled from my phone due to inactivity; I’m not on Pinterest, YouTube, Reddit, Discord, Twitch, Mastodon or BeReal.

And yet, watching “Octet,” I can see myself clearly; I’m definitely in this photo and I don’t like it. Why do I “reward” myself by browsing flash sale sites and watching TikTok makeup tutorials — passive pastimes that suck up hours of my day? Why do I wave off my boyfriend’s requests to not scroll until I fall asleep? Why do I binge-watch a comfort show for the zillionth time, instead of starting something new?

It turns out I’m much more Online than I realized, especially since the onset of the pandemic. Internet overuse is not just the province of the people at the furthest extremes, who drowned in debt while chasing influencer fame or died after a marathon of playing multiplayer video games. I may not be a diagnosed addict, and you may not be either, but that doesn’t mean taking the web in moderation comes easily to anyone.

It’s a sentiment “Octet” underscores by positioning the audience around the thrust stage, so every attendee is also seated for the support group. Perhaps they, too, are naming their virtual vices to themselves for the first time: sports highlights and market updates, pornography and product videos.

“Octet” manages to animate the entire breadth of the internet, and the countless ways it’s used at any given moment: dating apps yield lifelong love and a constant barrage of unsolicited nudes; social justice campaigns sprout from community websites and 4chans house the manifestos of racist killers.

With instant access to an infinite amount of information, the web allows us to educate ourselves on any topic, experience a facsimile of almost any phenomenon, explore more places and perspectives than any humans before us. But in gaining a world of immediate gratification, we lose time, money and, perhaps, the possibility of wonder. For a stage musical — a genre typically sold with a feel-good guarantee — to will such existential despair on its audience, shattering their worldviews through song-and-dance, is not only rare, it’s also disarmingly honest.

So what are we to do? Should we delete and deactivate everything that touches the internet, throw our gadgets away for good and stay off the grid for the rest of our lives? I mull this as the meeting’s attendees pour tea, specifically tinged with what Paula describes as “a powerful group psychedelic that induces a five-minute coma, in which your consciousness is transported back to its original, pure, pre-technological limbic state.”

The characters drink from their respective cups and lie down peacefully on the stage. All of them except one: Velma (Kuhoo Verma), a lonely nerd with a history of self-hatred and self-harm. Without anyone’s accompaniment, she opens up about the miracle she experienced: genuinely befriending someone on another side of the world.

“She likes all the same toys as me, makes all the same noises as me, and she noticed me from across the sea,” she sings. Her voice is bright and pure, her song starts to speed up as she pounds her chest like a strong, relentless heartbeat. “She says there is joy inside me, and I just have to trust where my heart goes / she says there is light inside me, but sometimes all I see are the shadows.”

Her solo — a soaring anthem about the Good Corner of the internet — feels triumphant, immediately blurring all the aforementioned dread that the web has cast on our society. The analog outcome, of being able to foster real connections with people, occasionally makes the ugly chaos of the digital world worth withstanding. I found myself filled with a newfound hope that I can conquer my monster — or at least begin to do a better job of taming my relationship to it.

It’s not going to be easy. After the performance, I reflexively draft a (lowercase) tweet about my love for the show, download the cast recording from its 2019 Off-Broadway premiere and read dozens of related articles until I eventually doze off, device still in hand. “A stale, pale glow lighting up the sheets…”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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