"Unicorns" by Naatak: Smoke and Mirrors at a Billion Dollar Start-Up
In Naatak Upclose’s “Unicorns”, we see an entertaining parody of the “best” of Silicon Valley: inflated valuations, self-promoting gobbledegook, gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, wily and self-serving investors, and innocents who are coopted into the system. All this in a little over an hour, with a crisp, witty script, and engaging actors who manage to keep the audience in splits for the entire duration.
“Unicorns” is currently playing at the second stage of the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, a more intimate space compared to the large main stage. The set consists of several blocks, a few in the front of the stage for an escalator, and a few at the back, used interchangeably as a bench at the office or as furniture in a home.
The play begins with all lights down, and a slide presentation appears on the screen at the back of the stage. We see several iterations of the Oberherr company pitch, a puff piece for “the highest valued startup in history.” There are lofty claims, terrific sound bites, much self-aggrandizement and little substance. Then, the stage lights come on, and we meet Sahil (played by Varghese Mudalaly), a software engineer arriving at his new place of work, Oberherr. By the escalator, he meets Joyce (Aparna Warrier) who works at another company in the building. From their friendly exchange we learn of the mystique around Oberherr. Joyce is highly impressed that Sahil is starting work there, exclaiming that he must be very good. She speaks admiringly and wistfully of Oberherr, saying she would likely never even get an interview call for the company.
Sahil finds his way to the office, and discovers three colleagues sitting on a bench, laptops on lap. These are the 3R’s: Radhika, Ram and Robin, played by Tannistha Mukherjee, Natraj Kumar and Rohit Mukherjee respectively (familiar faces from previous Naatak productions such as Toba Tek Singh, Arsenic & Old Lace, and Mela '17.)
Robin sits silently with his headphones on, typing away at his computer. When he actually does say something several days later, Sahil is amazed that he can speak. Sahil starts by asking for some help with on-boarding. He discovers that there is no Human Resources department. And nor is there is any company-issued computer for him. Oberherr is a BYOD company: bring your own device!
They are soon joined by Mike Jordan, the CEO (played by Barnaby Falls, who was Lord Mountbatten in Naatak's Toba Tek Singh) whom we have already met on the projected company slide deck. Clad in a black turtleneck and blue jeans (the uniform of real and wannabe Unicorn CEOs), Mike is a man of wide gestures and pithy soundbites. His words give a fairly convincing impression that they actually mean something.
In a commentary on the sorry state of affairs on gender equity in the valley, Mike asks Radhika, the only woman is the room, to bring him coffee, and lewdly attempts to pat her behind as she walks off.
Sahil earnestly asks for documents so he can learn more, and discovers that the company does not maintain any documents. Documentation, clearly, serves only to incriminate.
All this is both hilarious and sobering in light of various Silicon Valley shenanigans. The magic of many a Unicorn has faded, its horn falling off to reveal the mule beneath. Facebook is increasingly under siege for a combination of carelessness and hubris. Recently, a New Orleans court allowed the subpoena of certain New Orleans police records showing their use of controversial software from Palantir, a Peter Thiel company. In my own line of work, the company Theranos, which was also headed by a black-turtleneck-wearing Elizabeth Holmes, has collapsed under the weight of its nothingness after raising almost a billion dollars on smoke and mirrors.
Back to Sahil, he is completely puzzled at the end of the day as he is unable to find out what the company does and what he is supposed to do. He returns home to the sound of his wife Priya (Preeti Bhat) melodiously singing the romantic song “Piya tose naina lage re…” Their banter is warm and lighthearted. He wants her to improve her English. Why are you berating me, she asks. Good GRE word, he exclaims.
After Sahil clarifies that Mike Jordan the CEO is NOT in fact the famous basketball player, Priya asks what the company does. Sahil is at a loss for words. It brings dreams to reality, he offers. That’s just a tagline, she refutes. He continues grandly, "We live in a knowledge economy, where ideas are important.” The practical Priya is not impressed.
Back at the office, there is a walking meeting. Sahil joins the stride and hears several Greek names being bandied about: Oedipus, Athena and Aries (formerly known as Hypnos), all codewords for various projects.
He is struck by mention of a deadline. When inquiring about this, he is sternly told instead of something he needs to achieve by the end of the week. The only problem is he has no idea what that is. When he attempts to inquire, the CEO asks if he is aware of the severance package.
On the escalator with Joyce he learns she has been interviewing for new positions. He could put in a word for her at Oberherr, he comments. She is overwhelmed with gratitude.
As Joyce drags her feet into her office for performance reviews, Sahil becomes aware of Appraisal Day at Oberherr, where they conduct a 720. This turns out to be a 360, done two times. He tries to bow out of this, but the CEO insists he participate. Sahil asks if that is a requirement, a regulation, excited that there might actually be some framework that he could follow. There are no regulations, shouts the CEO. But, he continues, it is a rule. Rules are not regulations, he adds by way of explanation. To Sahil’s amazement, at the 720 he is promoted to super senior engineer. And in another classic Silicon Valley move, Radhika, who was expecting a promotion, is simply reprimanded as she expresses outrage that this newbie is promoted over her.
As Mike and Sahil speak, a loud disembodied voice is heard. That is the Board, Mike explains, they are everywhere, “like God”. We hear Anton and Richard, members of the Board (creepy voices by Harish Ravipati and Rohit Mukerjee), who congratulate Sahil for his good work. Astounded by the turn of events, and notwithstanding the promotion, Sahil’s doubts are undiminished, and he worries that he will forget the little he knows.
Before long, the Board drops in on Mike again. There is a cryptic exchange about “the optics of the scene”, and “her word against yours”, implications of a lawsuit in the making, and the suggestion of a leave of absence. This suggestion quickly firms into a decision, and Mike is allowed to retain all the stock as he steps away from the limelight. Travis Kalanick, anyone? Before he steps away, Mike is asked to find an interim CEO. He appoints… Sahil!
The board instructs Sahil to immediately promote Radhika in response to her complaints against Mike. And to prepare for an imminent IPO to be announced at a 7AM press conference. Overwhelmed with preparing for the IPO, Sahil sleeps on the bench at the office, and sleeps right through the press conference. To his surprise and relief, this solicits great praise from the board who say it made him seem mysterious to the press. Soon he is appointed CEO, as Mike is removed from this position. The pressures increase.
Priya, Sahil’s wife whom he hasn’t seen in days, calls to say that her father is in the ICU and she would like to go to India to see him. He weakly tries to talk her out of it asking how she could possibly improve the situation for this “knocked-out guy.” He succeeds in completely enraging her.
The IPO takes place, once again as he sleeps, and the stock price after the initial boost, starts falling steadily. The 3R’s have sold stock and made a killing. Ram and Robin leave the company to start one they were incubating while at Oberherr. Radhika leaves to spend time with her father in India. Sahil is horrified to discover that he cannot sell stock for three years! The Board calls to bid him goodbye: having pocketed their considerable gains from the IPO, they are off to golf in distant lands, leaving Sahil to field the innumerable queries from the press at the falling stock price.
Each of them has served his / her interests, and Sahil emerges the fool. Despondent about having no staff all of a sudden, Sahil runs into Joyce and immediately offers her a job. And thus the cycle will continue. The King is Dead. Long Live the King!
We know the culture. We’ve heard of it. Most recently and notoriously at Uber. Some of us have even lived through some of it. To see the absurdity of it all on stage is refreshing and delightful.
You can learn more about the origins of “Unicorns” by watching a short, engaging video on Naatak’s website in which writer and director Anush Moorthy speaks about a job he landed in that inspired this play.
After the show, I spoke with Naatak’s head of marketing, Rajiv Nema, who pointed out that Naatak’s typical plays have elaborate sets which are not amenable to traveling productions. Consisting of just a few blocks, this play's minimal set is well-suited to travel. In fact, Naatak invites requests for additional performances at any preferred location, via its Facebook page. When you are there, you will also see wonderful photographs from the play by Kyle Adler a few of which I have included above for your enjoyment, with permission.
So go to it, request a show in your area, and plan to spend an hour as I did, laughing till your sides hurt.