There is immersive theater, and then there is theater so immersive that re-entering the world afterward comes as a shock, because you did not realize it had taken you so deep into another reality.
On the face of it, “User Not Found” wouldn’t appear to have that kind of power. Created by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan for their British company, Dante or Die, it’s performed in a cozy neighborhood cafe in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Through the front windows you can see buses trundling by, and through the floorboards feel the rumble of passing subway trains. It’s not like the outside is ever far away.
But “User Not Found,” part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival, is interested in the everyday fracturing of our lives into digital and physical realms. A solo show as dependent on visual and aural design as on verbal storytelling, it invites us into a homey, communal space — warm on a chilly evening, and smelling of good things from the kitchen — then outfits each of us with tools of isolation: a pair of headphones and a loaner smartphone.
Directed by Attias, the show is performed by O’Donovan, and while he’s so close we could touch him, his monologue (written by Chris Goode) comes to us through the headphones as we peer into our glowing screens.
O’Donovan plays Terry — “just a guy in a cafe,” he tells us — and what we see on our phones is whatever he’s looking at on his. When he listens through his own headphones to music or the white noise of a waterfall, we hear that, too. (Creative technology design is by Marmelo, video by Preference Studio, composition and sound by Yaniv Fridel.)
Terry, who seems introverted even as he addresses a cafe full of people, still reads the print edition of the newspaper and does his writing in the pages of a notebook. His ex-partner, Luka, was the opposite, extroverted and enmeshed online — on Twitter and Facebook and a host of other apps.
When Luka dies unexpectedly, Terry’s first hint comes from a deluge of cryptic condolence texts sent by friends who assume he already knows. Soon he learns that he is Luka’s digital executor. It’s up to him to decide what to do with the many traces of the man he loved that are floating in cyberspace.
This is the plot, and it’s less than gripping, partly because Terry and Luka are (deliberately) such everymen. As Terry navigates his complicated grief, combing through Luka’s tweets for elusive validation of their shared offline life, the show gets baggy. It meanders close to what seems like an ending a couple of times before the actual finish.
Yet the experience, which continues an embrace of the digital under BAM’s new artistic director, David Binder, is nonetheless weirdly effective.
When an anguished Terry stood on a stool next to me, crushing a ginger cookie in one hand, a crumb bounced off my eyelashes — a brief, startling reminder of physical substance and proximity. Absorbed in tech toys in this intimate milieu (the set and lighting are by Zia Bergin-Holly), we have sealed ourselves off from one another, even side by side.
Afterward, out on Fulton Street, the cold autumn air snapped me back to the real world. I turned my phone on immediately.
User Not Found
Through Nov. 16 at Greene Grape Annex, 753 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; 718-636-4100, bam.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.