Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’ and the Trouble With Dramatizing the Internet

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The much-anticipated Two Boys saw its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night. Written by American composer Nico Muhly, who — aside from having a certain indie credibility after collaborations with Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, and Grizzly Bear — has the distinction of being the youngest composer to have an original work commissioned by the Met, Two Boys is a bit of a mixed bag. But that’s sort of how opera works; with a libretto from Pulitzer-winning playwright Craig Lucas and direction from Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher, the two-hour production never quite hits all the marks one wants it to in terms of plotting (although the music sure is beautiful). But what is most interesting is that it is the first major stage production to explore the way we interact with each other through the Internet.

Two Boys tells the story of a 16-year-old named Brian who is accused of the attempted murder of a 13-year-old named Jake. The opera follows Anne, a police detective in her early 50s who tries to unweave the complicated story Brian tells her: after meeting a fellow student, Rebecca, in a chat room, Brian is contacted by other mysterious figures. There’s Jake, Rebecca’s younger brother, who tells Brian that she was raped and possibly murdered by the family’s gardener, Peter. Then there’s Fiona, an M15 agent friend of Rebecca and Peter’s mother, who tells Brian that the siblings hacked into her computer and intercepted government documents; Fiona tells Brian that Rebecca had to be killed, and he could be implicated in a conspiracy if he doesn’t cooperate with her. Then there’s Peter, the menacing gardener, who also threatens Brian.

It’s a rather unbelievable story, yet it’s based on actual events that took place in Manchester in 2001. And you can, in this post-Catfish world, figure out what happens: despite the evidence showing that Brian’s stories of chatting online with these characters are indeed true — and that Jake, his sister, his aunt’s friend, and the gardener are real people — the figures that Brian chats with were fictionalized people created by Jake, who in real life does not resemble the avatar depicting a tall, handsome, self-assured young man. (The fact that the audience can clearly piece all of this together pretty quickly in the opera’s first act is one of its major faults; we have to watch Anne, completely clueless when it comes to computer and “speaking chat,” painfully take her time putting all of the clues together.)

The production comes up with a fairly ingenious way to present the burgeoning online world of the early aughts on stage. Projections, produced by 59 Productions, show the IM conversations between Brian and the various characters Jake plays in his game. And the chorus, made up of dozens of gray-costumed vocalists spookily lit by the laptops they hold in their hands, repeats a chain of phrases like “u there” and “you should kill yourself” (the latter comes out of nowhere, admittedly, as does random characters I identified later by looking in the Playbill and noticing them credited as “American Congressman” and “American Congressional page,” which are tied slightly into the opera’s queer themes but not so much at all with the online world at the center of the show). The chorus has a powerful effect: it represents very realistically the cacophonous noise of the Internet these days, created, mostly, by anonymous commenters, offering a refrain of negativity and cruelty.

Although Jake is a real boy and a major player within the opera, Fiona, Rebecca, Peter, and “Jake” — the figure represented originally in the avatar Jake uses to disguise himself — are presented as real characters to interact, through action and song, with Brian. They are not just figments of Jake’s imagination (after all, they are supposedly real people from his life); they are more like creations of Brian’s mind, based solely on the typo-laden chats he has with them.

But while Jake’s motivations are questionable — it was all a plot to convince Brian to kill him, which seems like a very complicated way to commit suicide — Two Boys depicts the inevitable tendency of human nature that flourishes on the Internet: to take the power of anonymity and manipulate it. But it also exemplifies the trouble with creating art about the Internet, which evolves and refreshes so often and so quickly that any attempt to dramatize it will likely suffer from being awfully dated and unrealistic. In the case of Two Boys, the dreary production design and the seemingly unfinished libretto are enough to distract from the essential themes at play: that the wild frontier of the Internet is nearly impossible to fathom or control, and those seeking connections will ultimately remain listless and doomed to wander alone forever.