It was hot in the little Tank theater and I hoped they wouldn’t turn off the AC. On the second floor of a complex of indie theaters on 36th Street, the edm was throbbing, the air conditioner was dying, and the crowd all seemed to know each other. I sat all the way against the wall at the inner end of a row of velour seats.
I love the kind of theater that straight up declares itself to be an assault on the senses, and Eat the Devil by Nadja Leonhard-Hooper and Dan Nuxoll, directed by Nick Flint, promised to be just that. I prepared to be overwhelmed, delighted, and a little confused. The show gave me all those things.
The minimalist set design was white and glossy, like a first gen ipod with its pristine, smooth curves. A flurry of video images featuring furries as primary players streamed on a long loop. Looked like they were having lots of fun.
In Eat the Devil, an AI designer and engineer, Penny (Lexi Braverman) works tirelessly on perfecting her creation, a sex doll called Mia (Kelinda Schuster) in her Apple/Amazon style lab. Meanwhile, somewhere overhead, a flight on sex positive Red Tube Air careens dangerously off course. Pundits take to the internet to parse reality according to their subjective perspective, a progressive You Tuber comes out as a goat man, and no one really knows what’s going on.
Set in the speculative present, where media as we know it is exactly how it is only more so, Eat the Devil riffs on crazy conservative pundits and contemporary hateable icons, like Tomi Lauren (Jenna Rubaii), Alex Jones (Nathaniel Kent), and a rando incel guy who can’t keep his mouth closed (Rory Spillane). But to deal with the spectacle of evangelical entertainment, it reaches back and pulls Jim Bakker (Ben Fine) from the archives of Americana. Though Bakker was Me Too’d before #metoo, with scandals both sexual and financial, he’s been on tv hawking end times and queso despite his convicted felon status.
Evangelism has taken as much of a dive as Bakker since its late 20th Century hey day. Perhaps this is because our experience of religious fervor these days is mostly relegated to the memory of mega churches on cable channels, the surging Christian right of the 1990’s, and a reactionary reflex against organized religion. Religions crumble around us and still we hold them up as something to be railed against, a monolith to be toppled.
Our mediated culture continues to strike hard blows to organized religion, but much like the agnostic who wants God to know just how much they don’t believe, these punches to what was once considered the fabric of American life fall with all fury and no impact. We hate our oppressive religions despite the fact that they stopped oppressing us ages ago.
In leveling our influencers and pundits as uninformed, self-obsessed nut cases, and dismembering religion as nothing more than a marketing scheme, Eat the Devil leaves one door open to our yen for meaning: tech. Penny’s new bot Mia is meant to be everything: vixen, darling, wife, sexy little girl, victim, dominatrix, lonely heart cure-all.
Mostly she’s a character without original sin, and for all us heathens out here, a virgin sex doll with childlike innocence is something we can truly have faith in. While the flight attendants on Red Tube Air (Emily Via and Kev Berry) think with their urges and abandon their brains to the will of internet chips, Mia the sex bot is the only one in the play free from sexual desire.
Perhaps it’s because of this innocence that the audience finds itself rooting for Mia, connecting with her in a way that they can’t connect with any of the real humans, and judging the humans harshly in comparison. Given the choice, we’d all rather be like Mia the sex bot than the crazed pundits, profit driven product makers, skeevy airline attendants, or the trans goat man.
But it’s a fallacy to believe that we can create AI that are more empathetic and human than ourselves, or that this is the way forward to realizing the best of humanity. We love Mia, we want sex bots, we want our creations to love us, because we hate ourselves. The self-hating human, who caused climate change, created systemic modes of oppression, buys tech made by virtually indentured slaves, and is so uncomfortable with her own desires that she demands everyone acknowledge them and tell us we’re okay, has to stop heaping this abuse upon itself.
Eat the Devil is about a quadrant of the human race that hates itself. The more wealth we have, the more options we create, the more modes of communication we engage in, the worse we feel about ourselves, and the more we want to give away our decision making power to something, anything else. It’s like American culture rn is a bunch of proverbial millennials who can’t figure out how to adult. We’re all so afraid. Eat the Devil is right about one thing, if we want to give our agency as humans over to an artificial creation, we can do that, we can even enjoy it, but it won’t make us feel any better about ourselves, and no matter how often or how hard we get off, we’re still going to wish someone loved us as much as we love our sex dolls.