by Samara Weiss · August 14, 2014
The Ultimate Stimulus is, for a presentation that flashes a slide of Thomas Piketty in its first five minutes, extremely politically mild. Although it is nominally about income inequality, it avoids any investigation into its causes. The actual target of the play's satire is the genre of the conference speech, as exemplified by TED Talks – an empty rhetoric of passion and optimism deployed to persuade an audience that the most serious problems of our time can be easily solved through the deployment of the speaker's pet theory. In the case of The Ultimate Stimulus, the pet theory is enforced concubinage of the poor by the rich: people above a certain income level will be required by law to take up to five poorer people as financial dependents and sex slaves.
Tanya O'Debra plays Amanda, inventor of this notion and presenter of the ersatz talk which is the show. O'Debra and author Felipe Ossa have noted and reproduced many of the characteristic verbal and physical tics and habits of intonation which go with speeches like these; the greatest laughs of the play come when Ossa and O'Debra either exactly nail a cliché or entirely subvert it. Sara Wolkowitz provides a staging which, although it is essentially a woman pacing back and forth for sixty minutes, feels no more awkward than the comedy requires. There are some jabs which don't land as hard as they might simply because they are not taken quite far enough: a joke about the fondness of TED-type speakers for graphs stumbles because it employs merely three graphs of the same data – unfortunately too close to plausibility. Max Wolkowitz provides projections that are amusing at times, but which generally feature a stick-figure aesthetic which seems out of place in such a purportedly serious talk – they are funny-looking, but they don't relate to the thing being parodied. However, many jokes hit where it hurts and provide satisfying laughs.
The premise is in some ways perfect; like many theories expounded in talks of this type, it is based on dubious premises, is cringe-inducingly horrible, and is guaranteed not to work the way it is supposed to, which makes it the perfect stand-in for Ossa to aim his jabs at. However, after twenty minutes, my amusement dropped off fairly sharply. The Ultimate Stimulus seemed to me to become a rape joke. Initially, it avoids this by turning Amanda's denial of the “consent problem” into its own joke, and it is not a bad joke at all. But as it dwells increasingly on her imaginings of the sex lives of the wealthy and their concubines, her rhapsodizing about the sexual bliss that will surely follow began to make me queasy. The idea seemed to be that we would laugh at the idea of straight people being forced into gay relationships, and vice versa. I didn't.
Had there been jokes other than this in the show's second half, I might have felt more amiable about it. Unfortunately, as it wandered further from its smart parody of the enthusiasms and certainties of idiots with clip-on mics and Power Point presentations, it seemed unable to find many other places to go.