Review: In ‘When We Went Electronic,’ Hell Is Available in Spandex

Posted October 31, 2018 7:11 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Bethany and Brittany — creatures of nylon, texturizer and vocal fry — are sales associates at the flagship branch of American Apparel. Their tights are ripped. Their bruises are covered by Ray-Bans. They can’t remember what happened last night, and they can’t seem to leave this stockroom. Think “No Exit,” with Lycra.

A slapdash lampoon of sexual trauma and noxious masculinity, “When We Went Electronic,” written by Caitlin Saylor Stephens and directed by Meghan Finn for the Tank in Manhattan, is a show in love with its own grotesquerie, a fun house ride that’s just a pile of distorting mirrors.

Bethany (Drita Kabashi) seems to be Brittany’s superior, and her preferred conversational style is the insult: “Ur advanced basic.” “Please betch. Ur just outdated.” Brittany (Tiffany Iris) sleepwalks around the store, wondering vaguely where her gashes came from and why there’s a condom in her updo. Stephens’ script plays word games with their worldview, replacing the word “look” with “lookbook,” “see” with “go-see,” “smashed” with “high-waisted.” When the words stop, they pose and pout and break into electroclash tunes by Sarah Frances Cagianese and Stephens.

The play’s pervy, perverse influence is American Apparel’s founder, Dov Charney. The favored oath is “Ohmidov!” (I first heard it as “Oh my dog,” then I twigged.) Charney, ousted in 2014 after an onslaught of sexual harassment allegations, considered sex with employees part of his compensation. “Sleeping with people you work with is unavoidable!” he told a Guardian journalist in 2017. (Full disclosure: I used to shop at American Apparel until I read reports of Charney’s behavior. More disclosure: I still kind of miss their leggings.) “When We Went Electronic” is a nightmare vision of sexual availability and minimum-wage retail.

And yet the semiotics of this show are a mess, super “high-waisted.” To illustrate a toxic workplace and the women who internalize it, the play has its underdressed actresses pose for crotch shots. (I’m sure they’re not victims. I’m sure they’re equal collaborators and having a high-old time. But still.) The play wrings its laughs — and, in fairness, its horror — from just how vapid its characters are. The obvious, inarguable point is that no one deserves assault, dumb betches included. But “When We Went Electronic” invites the audience to be part of an ugly presumption of superiority. No one is laughing with these ladies.

What the show has going for it — aside from Kabashi’s savagely brittle performance and Cagianese’s deadpan bops — is its absurdist edginess. For a while, anyway. This is a taut and brutal one-act that sized up into something much baggier. There’s no conversation that doesn’t echo, no dynamic that isn’t on repeat. The title is spoken at least 30 times, and I still have no idea what it means. The play sells out its urgency long before it arcs toward revelation. By the time the actresses are assaulting each other with an emergency light stick repurposed as a dildo, just what or who is being satirized?

I was ready to go analog.

Additional Information:

‘When We Went Electronic’

Through Nov. 11 at the Tank, Manhattan; 212-563-6269, thetanknyc.org. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.