Culture

Rumor Mill: Dot-com drama or Internet idiocy?

Like the New Economy era it chronicles, dot-comedy Ctrl+Alt+Delete shows a late boom and early bust.

In the interest of variety, the Rumor Mill occasionally departs from its format of rumors, lies and innuendo to indulge in that fourth journalistic vice, criticism.

Being generalists, we have cast judgment on dot-com eateries, dot-com documentaries, and dot-com blues alike. This week we turn our attention to the dot-comedy Ctrl+Alt+Delete by Anthony Clarvoe, making its initial public offering at the San Jose Repertory Theater through Nov. 18.

In attempting to portray the inner lives of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, the play boldly goes where no playwright has bothered to go before. This is all the more nervy since no one has yet demonstrated that venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have inner lives. One leaves this play more skeptical than ever of the proposition.

Although it is a work of fiction, it's not hard to see the characters as lampoons of real world personalities, and picking them out is part of the fun. Sightings include venture capitalist John Doerr, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and lesser lights such as CNBC's Maria Bartoromo, to name a few.

Director Ethan McSweeny and his agile, energetic and very funny cast bring out the best of Clarvoe's zippy one-liners, and Todd Rosenthal's versatile set, a tic-tac-toe scaffold strewn with Aeron chairs, is as appealing as one could ask for considering the play's dismal corporate environs.

Still, dot-com mania deserves a better send-up: If Clarvoe has a coherent idea about the human meaning behind the accretion of tremendous wealth by purveyors of nonexistent products at the expense of credulous investors and reckless speculators, we wait for it, like the Internet bubble's true believer, in vain. A moral to this story remains vaporware.

The story chronicles the late boom and early bust of the New Economy through the travails of VC fund Prospera, led by the charismatic and possibly insane Gus Belmont (James Carpenter).

Belmont, like others in the play, is an amalgam of influential figures in the Internet boom easily recognized by anyone vaguely familiar with the goings-on in Silicon Valley over the past few years. Echoing venture capitalist king-pin Doerr, he crows self-servingly about the "largest creation of wealth in history" through "keiretsu" and is touted as a possible contender for the White House (remember "Gore and Doerr in 2004?"). Like Greenspan, his most casual aside rocks or rallies markets.

Belmont is as much an inspirational guru and self-fulfilling prophet as a VC investor, and so it is no surprise that the ambitious, fresh-faced Eddie Fisker (Patrick Darragh) finds his way to him to pitch his wireless gadget, the Gizmo. This all-in-one communications device, or rather its specs, become the basis of a fundamentally fraudulent Internet start-up selling vaporware to IPO speculators.

This all too familiar premise is complicated by the machinations of the unashamedly venal VC and hapless Gizmo CEO Carbury Grendall (Sam Gregory), who is permanently saddled with the reputation of having "cratered his start-up," and the seeming ingenue Marie (Betsy Brandt), Belmont's niece. Rounding out the cast are the neurotic heir and biz dev whiz Tom Xerox (Rob Nagle), and the gullible, fawning TV tech news personality Toria Bruno (Jennifer Kato), who further blackens tech journalism's collective eye with her onscreen cheerleading for inflationary Internet hype.

The problem with Ctrl+Alt+Delete is that it's not interesting enough to be a play and not comic enough to be a sit-com. It languishes somewhere in between, cranking out laugh lines at irregular intervals and struggling to say something memorable about the people and times it has chosen to portray.

That isn't to say that Ctrl+Alt+Delete isn't occasionally very funny, or that its characters do not ask meaningful questions about the soulless pursuits to which they've devoted their lives. But the jokes are oddly concentrated in the second half, by which time the average sit-com viewer would long since have changed the channel. And the playwright handles moral and emotional questions like a day trader: picking up, unloading them quickly, and hoping for the best, with predictable results.

Wealth and success remain the characters' idées fixes. Although the playwright is presumably approaching this condition from a critical or at least satirical perspective, his play fails to transcend its characters' obsession. "What's the worst that could happen?" Eddie is asked the morning Gizmo goes public. "I could wind up poor?" he ventures. The play itself weighs no more than this uncouth anxiety.

Even before Sept. 11, such stakes would have a hard time keeping theatergoers on the edge of their seats.