Play pokes fun at startup companies

Varghese Muthalaly, Tannistha Mukherjee, Rohit Mukherjee and Natraj Kumar star in “Unicorns” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Varghese Muthalaly, Tannistha Mukherjee, Rohit Mukherjee and Natraj Kumar star in “Unicorns” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

REVIEW

BY JOHN ANGELL GRANT
Daily Post Theater Critic

Do you want to be a billionaire? Of course you do, and that is the Silicon Valley disease.

As a result we have unicorns, which in local slang means a start-up with a billion-dollar support investment.

“Unicorns” is also the title of a new play on this topic that opened over the weekend at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, presented by Naatak, in its Up Close second-stage production series. Founded originally by students from Stanford and UC-Berkeley 22 years ago, Naatak is now the largest Indian theater company in the United States. They have produced more than 100 plays.

“Unicorns” is a Kafkaesque journey into the world of Silicon Valley startups. It spoofs Apple and Uber, and borrows some of the look and feel of Showtime’s “Billions.”

The show opens with a CEO’s energetic babble-speak pep talk. Then an engineer shows up for day one of his new job at the CEO’s mysterious startup. In this enigmatic company there are no desks and no documents, no chairs and no walls.

They express the belief that all you need is yourself. The organization is secretive, saying only that its work is the stuff of dreams.

One of its tools is a 720, which is a 360 done twice. (Note: a 360 is an employee assessment that enables the employee to assess his superiors as well as vice versa.)

It’s unclear what the startup’s product is. Sometimes it claims to have no product because “we live in a knowledge economy.” Employees are paid in stock rather than cash. There’s an acknowledgement of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.

CEO’s meaningless phrases Startup CEO (Barnaby Falls), dressed in jeans and a black Steve Jobs turtleneck, speaks in hyperbolic and grand meaningless phrases typical of company mission statements that rely on buzz words so general they could be adopted by any company.

His new employee (Varghese Muthalaly) is put on deadline on a project he has not been briefed on. In general, the lack of information about the company feels like a metaphor for the powerlessness felt by many Silicon Valley employees whose knowledge is limited to their small group, and they have no idea what other products and services their company offers.

On the downside, the play’s absurdist-speech shtick can feel repetitious. The show also falls back on stereotypes. The company’s board, for example, includes a Texan and a German.

“Unicorns” runs 70 minutes with no intermission. It is a bare-stage production, where blocks and minimal props create office, home and stairwell spaces. Over the top Playwright Anush Moorthy directed the show with an over-the-top feel.

In retrospect, it might be funnier if played straight by the actors, or at least deadpan, letting the text make the jokes.

The show has two more performances next Sunday in Mountain View, and both are sold out. If people are interested in seeing it performed elsewhere, let Naatak know. This bare-stage production is portable.

For tickets and information visit naatak.com.

John Angell Grant is the Daily Post’s theater critic. Email him at johnangellgrant@gmail.com.

 

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