Revenge of a Nerd
The furore surrounding Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why is a clear indicator that the road to hell can often be lined with good intentions. Asher’s attempt to highlight the plight of teenage suicide has received an almost universal backlash for reducing this critical issue to a poorly thought through blame game, and for failing to address its more complex causes, such as underlying mental health problems. Irish-American, Liam Hallahan takes a similar, slippery, well-intentioned slope in his latest play “REDPILL”, which claims to explore the darker side of the Internet and masculinity. But “REDPILL” doesn’t do what it says on the tin, reinforcing instead the negative stereotype of the weird geek as dangerous weirdo. For in “REDPILL”, it seems nerds are cowardly, creepy, misogynistic menaces to women after all, as are their Dads. To be avoided at all cost for fear their beta male insecurity might prompt them to troll you, or secretly hack your online identity and post all your private stuff on the Internet because you won’t go out with them. Reinforcing rather than challenging negative stereotypes, “REDPILL” deals in too many clichés, buzzwords and predictable scenarios which not even a heartfelt performance by Hallahan can elevate into something with substance. Offering no new insights on misogyny or masculinity, and saying even less on the context and dangers of the Internet, “REDPILL” is a mismatched tale that ultimately goes nowhere, one where comedy and drama clash in an aspirational production that misses its mark. Which is a pity, for Hallahan appears to be a genuine and likeable guy.
In “REDPILL”, uber-geek and high school teenager, Ben, lives at home with his Mom, dances to Anime theme music to feel better, and is unable to get the attractive girl. Finding solace with fellow misfit, Helen, Ben is too slow to realize his feelings for her until they both go to college and he sees her with another guy. Firmly in the friend zone, but with an inflated sense of his own entitlement, Ben makes his clumsy, over-sharing move while Helen is on the rebound. Stunned when she rejects him, Ben immediately lashes out with some vicious texts. It’s obviously her fault, an argument Ben’s reprobate Dad firmly supports as he directs him to the website Redpill, a sort of digital Iron John on steroids, where beta males bond, pretending they’re alpha males, whilst bemoaning all women as emasculators. From there it’s only a small step from texts to hacking emails for this self-professed good guy, for all woman are bitches and have it coming anyway.
Hallahan’s use of the title “REDPILL” is supposedly derived from the movie The Matrix, where a red pill allows its users to see what’s real. But this claim seems disingenuous to say the least. The 2016, award winning documentary The Red Pill, by film maker Cassie Jaye, also uses the same idea to interrogate the men’s movement in America to better understand competing masculinities; their issues, failings and complexities. Something Hallahan fails to do, dealing with both masculinity and feminism in juvenile terms and showing little or no awareness of the dynamics of either. Displaying about the same level of research, and reaching similarly inaccurate conclusions, as someone with sunburn Goggling medical advice and deciding they have leprosy, “REDPILL” sacrifices rigour in favour of easy clichés. Here all men are bastards and all women are victims, even though both genders abuse online, their alphas and their betas, not that you’d know it from “REDPILL”.
Hallahan’s script takes an almost paint by numbers approach in construction. Scenarios follow sequentially with little overlap, feeling clobbered or wedged in at times, with little use of structural development in evidence. An initially charming intro, feeling like a character sketch for an episode of Saved By The Bell, promises much. Lightweight, comedic, Hallahan’s predictable high school fat boy wishing he was a frat boy is performed with energy and panache and is deeply engaging. The arrival of Helen suggests there’s some heart on the way. Indeed, “REDPILL” is at its engaging best when it deals in recognizable characters rather than making them mouthpieces for misogyny.
Thankfully, Hallahan, under Paul Doran’s direction, delivers an energetic performance and keeps things visually interesting, if not always verbally so. Design team Áine O’Hara on set, Suzie Cummings on lighting, and Fionn Foley on sound, support Doran's direction incredibly well. Indeed, terrific design, direction, and an energetic performance of weak material go a long way to salvaging “REDPILL” into something watchable. When it’s funny, it can be very, very funny indeed, though far too often it loses its audience. Never more so than when it strives to address deeper issues, only ever skating the surface before eventually slipping through the cracks and down into the ice.
In a post Big Bang Theory and The Red Pill universe, “REDPILL’s" socially awkward Ben risks being little more than an anachronism. One who never gets beyond being a dangerous, delusional baby throwing a temper tantrum because he doesn’t get his own way. And if you’re thinking maybe that’s the point in light of Trump and his blatant misogyny, it’s a reductive point poorly made that misses the deeper issues “REDPILL” purports to address. Dealing in sweeping and easy generalities that risks further alienating many already feeling alienated, “REDPILL” might take an anti-Trump position, but it does so by taking a Trump-like approach to dealing with its issues, showing easy prejudice and a lack of intellectual rigour. In the end, “REDPILL” is a one-man production you hate to hate, because Hallahan seems genuine in his ambition and has you desperately wanting to love it.
“REDPILL” by Liam Hallahan, runs at Theatre Upstairs until July 29th
For more information, visit Theatre Upstairs