Leo Reich’s debut Fringe show is dazzling. A portrait of rabid Gen Z narcissism that is brilliantly funny, and despite the artfully superficial persona, threaded through with melancholy and rage; emotion which is ironic and also not. Reich is incisive about the conditions that have generated contemporary pathologies – the warping effects of technology for instance; with dating apps that breed self-alienation and social media decimating attention spans, and the narcissism fed by both. There’s also an acute awareness of the performative convictions bred by what academic Wieland Schwanebeck calls ‘the uncertain regime of political correctness’ and the ways in which they, too, contribute to narcissism.
Reich arrives on stage, archly anguished in remembering his last forward roll aged 9, ‘my last, and I didn’t even know it’, and the momentum never slackens, powered by his imperious energy and the show’s punchy musical numbers. The theme of destroyed innocence is there throughout, as part of a generation born into a ruined world (one song is for ‘the old’, *shudder* so old they might miss the apocalypse they’ve been so busy making), with shrivelled expectations. But the material is never less than scintillating – as he mocks his own empty performances of the liberal orthodoxy we’re so familiar with, the buzzwords that risk becoming hollowed out: lived experience, emotional labour, echo chambers.
‘We are made to do the emotional labour of knowing stuff about things’ Reich complains petulantly, and while he’s obviously mocking his own particular vacuousness, there’s also a critique here of a vocabulary that potentially prohibits real engagement or thought, one that perhaps even actively allows for vacuousness. Sarah Garnham has argued that while the codifications used in discussing oppression are ‘both necessary and important for understanding the complexity of society’, ‘on their own they oversimplify the reality of social divisions and how they work in practice’. These classifications prize the subjective and the emotional over the more factual or objective; ‘lived experience’, for example, which Garnham suggests prioritises ‘personal reflections and anecdotes over attempts to theorise the social basis of oppression’ (and sets up that subjectivity as an ‘unassailable moral authority that cannot be challenged or debated’). Likewise, ‘emotional labour’, which in Reich’s joke, becomes a defensive gambit, and a way to avoid challenge or debate (or the harder task of grappling with a corpus of knowledge).
In the show, the narcissism is also understood as a consequence of depthlessness, of the kind that Frederic Jameson diagnosed as borne out of a postmodern ‘weakening of historicity’. In talking about coming of age during a pandemic, for example, Reich asks haughtily, ‘Couldn’t this have been saved for an era when people had the capacity for this kind of thing, you know, the olden times?’ It’s both a joke about a lack of historical knowledge, or any larger perspective, and also about snowflake frailty and entitlement, or perhaps more precisely, about the self-fulfilling consequences of the snowflake label.
For all the bite of the satire, Reich’s mockery of his generation is modulated by melancholy, and, routed as it is through his preening self-regard, never less than hilarious.
Garnham, Sarah, ‘The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis’, Marxist Left Review, No.22, Winter 2021, https://marxistleftreview.org/?issue-number=22
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1992.
Schwanebeck, Wieland, ‘Introduction to Painful Laughter: Media and Politics in the
Age of Cringe’, Humanities 10: 123. 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040123