Bright lights, big valley

Remember where you were when dot-com lunacy reigned? Art does imitate life as New York playwright Anthony Clarvoe critiques and celebrates Silicon Valley's "wild ride" in his New Economy comedy.

2 min read
Technophiles say Silicon Valley in the late 1990s was a modern-day Florence--a place of unleashed creativity for entrepreneurs and artists. Bashers think it was a cauldron of self-interest--a materialistic mecca for money-grubbing technocrats.

Anthony Clarvoe thinks it was a little of both. It also served as a perfect stage for the New York playwright's chef d'oeuvre titled Ctrl+Alt+Delete. The "New Economy comedy" will run Oct. 20 to Nov. 18 at the San Jose (Calif.) Repertory Theater.

Clarvoe's play pokes fun at the seemingly clueless investors who helped fuel the Internet bubble, as well as the entrepreneurs, journalists and others who gushed about computerized gizmos and e-commerce business plans. Based in California's Silicon Valley from 1998 to 2000, the player centers on "a kid with a gizmo" who has a billion-dollar initial public offering and aspires to become "some rich, successful guy."

The 41-year-old San Francisco native, whose previous plays include The Brothers Karamozov and The Living, talked with CNET News.com about how the Silicon Valley makes fabulous theater.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Ctrl+Alt+Delete?
A: I'm from the Bay Area so I have a lot of family and friends in Silicon Valley, and I've been hearing war stories for years. Really, what was striking to me was looking at and hearing about things like Amazon and people like (Amazon.com CEO) Jeff Bezos and (billionaire investment wizard) George Soros--the way that with charisma and conviction, these guys are able to get seemingly sober investors to kick out all of the rules they know and say, "History is over." They influence world markets with a single sound byte.

I was watching all this and I said, "That's like theater. You guys are theater people walking out on stage." I figured it would just be more fun if you could suspend your disbelief. If nobody says, "The emperor is stark naked," we could all have a lot of fun.

'd="" all="" just="" kept="" believing,="" it="" would="" stay="" true.""=""> What's the essence of your play?
It charts the pilgrim's progress of a young entrepreneur with what he calls The Gizmo--a killer app from 18 months ago. His venture capitalist basically takes this almost nothing thing and makes something out of it--and the market is ready to capitalize in the billions a pure idea. It's also about the increasing vertigo, the jitteriness of it all. I kept thinking of "The Right Stuff" (a book by Tom Wolfe about the U.S. space program): They go higher and higher, and the controls get shakier and shakier. They're hanging onto dear life, and everyone is worried. Soon the quiet little voices say, "Can't we make more money by shorting this?" Pretty soon those voices got control.

A lot of people are pointing fingers and trying to assess blame among venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, Wall Street traders and general investors. In your play, who takes the blame?
She's a niece. She lets it be known that the godlike venture capitalist for whom she is speaking has decided that the telecom sector is a bunch of lames, which leads to a meltdown of telecom, communications, computers, chips and chip construction, equipment, everything. The whole house of cards blows down.

There were so many people out there who kept thinking, "If we'd all just kept believing, it would all stay true." I was reading Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (written by Charles MacKay in 1841). It's basically about all sorts of people in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who were saying, "All the old rules are over. It's never going to stop." Now flash-forward to what was going on a few years ago. It was like I was reading CNBC on parchment. I was going, "Wait a minute. I don't know much, but I don't think we know everything."

It sounds like the play features heavy doses of ego and bravado. Does it portray Silicon Valley in an unflattering light?
I wouldn't say that. All of the play, or maybe 90 percent of it, is about hanging on for dear life while the rocket goes flying. Everyone is wondering, "Am I going to be the last man off?" So, yeah, there's a big element of selfishness and ego, but it's not about that exclusively.

What reaction do you want from the crowd when the curtain falls and people start filing out of the theater?
The reaction I'm looking for is knowing laughter. The best I can hope for is for people not to say, "That reminds me of me," but rather, "That reminds me of a whole lot of other people--my friends and neighbors, my boss." At this point, we're enough removed from the bubble bursting, and we learn fast. We can now say, "Yup, what a wild ride."

So people aren't going to curse you for lampooning what they've done over the last half-decade?
I'd be very surprised if they reacted that way. My affection for these people and what they were feeling comes right through. The actors love the people they're playing. It is very affectionate. We really are seeing them as, in a way, fellow artists and fellow freelancers.

Good things came out of it. I've got to take my hat off to everyone involved; they put on a great show...And now there's wonderful technology in the wake of this. And like actors, many of the former high-fliers sure to visit the San Jose Repertory Theater to view the play will be unemployed!
Yeah, and we even understand that. They created something out of thin air, and that's what we do every day. So we have an affection for and rooting interest in all of them. The ending is surprisingly sunny.

How does it end?
That would be telling. But it ends with surprising affection and resilience. I didn't know until I wrote it how it was going to end. One of the great things about this whole cycle is that, at the bottom of the dive, we bounced. We bounced back. We lived through it.

Is the play based on any particular crash-and-burn case--such as Webvan or Pets.com--or is it an amalgam?
It's six actors portraying the entire financial community and the people who reported on it. Each plays one character apiece. People are portraying individuals and amalgams. There's one character who is the entire financial reporting world. This character provides a very funny, goofy take on (CNBC anchor) Maria Bartiromo and the strange drug of hype and sudden fame. But in general it's not about one particular story or person. It felt like a larger story than one single thing.

It's not even necessarily about Silicon Valley, though the attention of the world was on it. The markets were global, and the experience was international. This play has a lot of scenes set in airports--sometimes several airports at once. I think people in a lot of places have, upon reading it, thought it was about them.

In your play, what good things emerged from the bubble?
All of the good preconditions, the freedoms and entrepreneurial spirit that drove it--those things are still ours. Good things came out of it. I've got to take my hat off to everyone involved; they put on a great show...And now there's wonderful technology in the wake of this. Whatever it was as an investment opportunity, it is extraordinary technology. I feel incredibly lucky that people committed all of this time and energy and money so that I can download Shakespeare onto my hard drive. Frauds were perpetrated, but overall it was not a fraud.

In the play, ultimately you realize that these are tremendous people. I became tremendously fond of these people. They're creative. They're creators. There's imagination and gumption being put to the ultimate test in front of God and everybody: Look at 'em go!

A lot of your friends in Silicon Valley and New York probably lost a lot of money--not to mention pride--when the stocks of these tech companies bombed and the companies fired thousands of workers. Great theater aside, do you wish the bubble could have burst in a less painful way--or maybe not happened at all?
No. I'm glad I went through it. A lot of people, whatever the financial result, have to feel that they may never be this alive again. I think for people our age, there was that sense that they'd never have a time like that--that incredible rush of communal excitement. But we got one. It'll be remembered as one of the great high-flying epics in social history, and we were there for it.

What about you? You're taking the play on the road when it ends its run in San Jose. Are you capitalizing on the bubble?
No, not at all. I identify with these people. I do what they do--create out of thin air--all the time for one one-thousandth of the money. This just made so much sense.