Oculus Go to the polls

In which "Fleabag" knocks the wind out of me, I run screaming from virtual reality horror, and I respect the resilience of Danielle Staub.

There is a line in Fleabag — Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acclaimed play and the inspiration behind her TV series of the same name — that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I saw it Sunday night. On the one hand, I don’t mind because there are far worse voices to have in your head than Waller-Bridge’s. On the other, it’s one of the most devastating things that the titular Fleabag says. After expressing that sex is a crutch she relies on for validation and escape, she concludes, “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone, which isn’t fucking funny.” You can’t help but wince. So much great theater is a punch in the gut, and writing like that leaves you breathless.

I sometimes have trouble with one-person shows: as someone who has done my fair share of storytelling onstage, I obviously recognize it as a valid form of expression. But so often, even when I enjoy the performer and the story being told, I struggle to maintain focus for a full-length solo play. There are definite exceptions of course. I recently saw a production of Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part, and that was riveting. Fleabag was equally captivating, largely thanks to Waller-Bridge’s dynamic but appropriately restrained performance, and Vicky Jones’ tight direction. But on its own, Waller-Bridge’s script is just so goddamn good. It’s funny enough that the bleakness catches you off-guard — and then 36 hours later, you’re still repeating lines to yourself like a misguided mantra. Fleabag is very sold out, but they do release last-minute tickets, so bookmark that website and don’t give up hope!

The other theatrical event I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is Natalie Walker going on as Alice in Alice By Heart. Now here is where I provide the disclaimer that this is my newsletter and I am allowing myself to gush about personal friends in a way that I would not as a professional critic. As a journalist, I recuse myself from any critical discussion of Alice By Heart; as a me, I am saying that Natalie Walker did that. (You can accuse me of bias, but she was objectively great. You should be friends with people whose work you admire, because surrounding yourself with talent is inspiring and motivating, and because lying about liking something is truly exhausting.) I’d seen Alice By Heart once before and was enchanted by the score and the cast, but it was such a joy to see it with Natalie and have an entirely different experience of the show.

If you are the kind of person who opens a Playbill, sees an understudy slip, and feels dread, I’d advise you to shift your perspective. (This is sure to be old news for many of you, but look at the heinous asshole who decided to boycott Laura Benanti — best of luck with that — because she had the audacity to call out for a family emergency.) Seeing an understudy is a rare opportunity, and I feel lucky that I’ve been able to see Natalie take on two different roles in Alice By Heart. And shout out to Michael Hartung, who went on as the Duchess and made that part his own. If you haven’t seen the show yet, there are still tickets available. (It’s a small enough theater that you should be good wherever.) Meanwhile, I am impatiently waiting for an album, so I can stop watching this video of Colton Ryan and Molly Gordon singing “Afternoon” on repeat.

When I’m not falling down a YouTube hole — watch the song and appreciate my wording, thanks in advance — I’ve been playing with my new Oculus Go. This is not an ad, I just wanted to mention a recent ill-advised impulse purchase. (I still have health insurance for another month and a half, leave me alone.) Apparently many people use their Oculus Go for games, but I have been cursed with the hand-eye coordination of an indoor kid, so I mostly bought it to watch movies on. When you live in a studio apartment, a virtual movie theater is actually a pretty delightful compromise. I’ve been especially interested in what VR means for horror, as someone who is very easily startled by horror that isn’t immersive. There are plenty of VR experiences built around jump scares, because jump scares are easy, particularly when you can’t cover your eyes or your ears. But there’s so much potential when it comes to VR horror, an area I am gently dipping my toe in — while also keeping one hand affixed to my headset in case I need to rip it off in a sudden panic.

I downloaded an “experience” — that’s what they call it, but know that I hate it — called Face Your Fears, with the full knowledge that it was a terrible idea. It basically puts you in a bunch of vignettes designed to trigger your deepest anxieties, and I was relieved to discover the plane crash experience is not part of the free demo. (I will almost certainly buckle and pay for it in the near future, justifying the whole thing as exposure therapy. And then I will steep in my regret.) I did one experience where you’re high up in a building that’s attacked by giant robots from outer space, because I’m not particularly afraid of robots or heights, and I found the whole thing to be pretty impressive. But then I clicked the haunted room experience, heard creepy music, and immediately “nope”-d my way out of there. Life is too short for me to scream in my empty apartment because I turn around on my bed and see some fucking demon behind me. I will, however, find a friend I can con into doing it on my behalf so I can at least observe their reactions.

But I did want to try watching an actual full-length horror film on the Oculus Go. With the Hulu app, you can watch movies in the aforementioned virtual theater, which is a neat trick that makes you feel like there’s a big screen in your apartment. I decided on Jigsaw, which isn’t particularly scary or a movie, because it’s the only Saw film I hadn’t seen and also it was streaming. I do think the novelty of the virtual theater will wear off eventually, but for now, I’m very into tricking my mind into thinking I have far more space in my studio than I actually do. As for the movie: I didn’t hate it! It’s certainly dumber than (most) Saw movies before it, but that’s almost a point in its favor since the Saw series is the most unnecessarily complicated horror franchise ever created. (Spend a couple hours trying to parse the whole plot via Wikipedia summaries. It’s a descent into madness.) And watching Jigsaw with all outside distractions blocked out definitely made for a more intense experience — or probably would have if there were any actual scares to speak of. I assure you there were several moments wherein I said, “Oh, gross,” so. There’s that.

While we’re on the subject of immersive horror experiences, I wanted to touch on last week’s final Real Housewives of New Jersey reunion, which I didn’t get a chance to write about in my most recent newsletter. I guess I was hoping for a more complete destruction of Danielle Staub — something reminiscent of last season’s Real Housewives of Atlanta reunion, where all the women joined forces for the final boss battle and immolated Kim Zolciak until she was crying about how racism wasn’t even a thing until the internet, bless her heart. But Danielle, who brought Teresa custom BFF jewelry that honestly felt like a threat, lives to fight and manipulate another day. I’ll be honest: I’m low-key proud of her resilience. I’m just baffled that anyone who watched the season, including Tre, could remain loyal to Danielle at this point. Of course, that’s making the wild assumption that Teresa actually watched the season. (Should we let her know the show is good again?)

I remain mixed on Danielle’s Housewives future. I think it’s morally and legally irresponsible to keep her on television, but I’m also not sure what the show looks like without her at this point. Next season could be a return to the well trod territory of Teresa vs. Melissa, but that gets old fast — and without Danielle driving a wedge between them, I have to assume Joe Gorga would force them to kiss and make up. Plus, in addition to bringing out the absolute worst in Teresa, Danielle brings out the best in Margaret, who emerged as the real star of the season. “You can change your face, you can change your address, you can change your clothes, but you haven’t changed your soul” is… iconic? But then, so was “Your husband’s in the pool.” I fear Danielle is significantly shortening Margaret’s lifespan, but my god, what a way to go. I suspect Danielle will be back next season, still trying to claw her way into full-time Housewife status, and with a few more engagements under her belt.

On the RHOA front, I’m wondering if NeNe will return. I realize that unfollowing her castmates (and Andy!) is more of a tantrum than an indication of her plans going forward, but it doesn’t bode well for her reunion performance. And now that she’s pivoting back to acting, I would not be surprised if she retired her peach, at least for the time being. (Can Marlo have it if you’re not using it? Come on.) The resolution of the closet fight was completely unsatisfying, and we’re not really getting at the deeper issues at play here. I’m not sure if Bravo actually wants Kenya back, but a source close to her who definitely isn’t Kenya herself said she’d be willing to return if NeNe left, and I want to believe the show would make that swap to save itself. As it stands, I don’t know how much more I can take of Kandi’s burlesque-adjacent shows — and I can say that as someone who streams “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” on repeat primarily because I know that puts money in Kandi’s bank account. Whatever happens, RHOA needs a real change. And somewhere, Phaedra Parks is plotting.