Nowadays, the latest form of media to stir up a craze is also probably the most simple. Podcasts are becoming more popular than ever, allowing anyone anywhere the chance to hear people jabber on about anything from carnal desires to hyper-niche political in-jokes. Some fund their ventures through services like Patreon, others insert mid-show interludes hawking mattresses and web design platforms for advertiser money.
New satirical play Ex Habitus, written by Lilla Goettler and Katie Hathaway and presented as part of the inaugural Corkscrew Theater Festival, gives a behind-the-scenes look into the world and drama of this auditory media form. While it’s billed as a take on “millennial podcasting,” don’t expect any complaints about killing industries. There’s not even one mention of avocado toast.
Ex Habitus centers around two pairs of longtime friends: Holly and Miles, and Ben and Jen. The former are preppy heirs to an “etiquette dynasty,” the latter is comprised of one child TV star and one bestselling author. Married couple Ben and Jen’s casually steamy relationship advice podcast is wildly popular, while siblings Holly and Miles’s family-sponsored attempt to show old-time etiquette to today’s viewers isn’t doing so hot.
Pit any two ventures of the same variety against each other and there is sure to be drama. Particularly ones so different: Ben and Jen’s podcast is cool and edgy, while Holly and Miles’s etiquette show feels hopelessly stuck in the past. How to hook up on vacation is inevitably going to garner more views than what fork to use, especially when the latter isn’t meant as innuendo. Once the manners masters realize this, they make some more modern changes. Competition simmers, bubbles, then comes to a rolling and vicious boil.
It’s also worth mentioning that Holly and Miles are white as Wonderbread and Ben and Jen are not. The racial optics of the play’s dynamic hang thick and unspoken in the air from the start, particularly considering it’s severely clear within minutes how wealthy and privileged Holly and Miles are, and that their “etiquette dynasty” goes back so far that it’s more than likely their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. However, this isn’t tangibly addressed in the play until close to the end. While the seeds of a complicated discussion were planted, I found myself wishing for a deeper dive.
But sometimes, subtlety is a positive here. Typically, when a show deals with topics like queerness or polyamory, marketing material tends to shout this from the rafters, using the “subversive” nature of the non-straight or non-monogamous to reel potential audiences in.
Walking into Ex Habitus, I only had a vague idea that I would see a show about young people, manners, and podcasts, with some drama thrown in for good measure. This did indeed happen, but there were also some refreshing portrayals of queerness and non-monogamy that I didn’t expect. Almost all of the characters (if not 100% of them) speak casually about not being straight, and are shown hooking up, going on dates, and speaking of past or potential flings. Even the elusive bisexual male makes an appearance. There’s some obligatory talk of coming out or hiding orientations from parents, but overall queerness is an impressively normal part of this play’s world.
Non-monogamy is handled similarly. The yoga-loving, charismatic Ben and Jen are in an open relationship. This factors into their podcast heavily, as they frame themselves as the perfect combination of freedom, open-mindedness, and commitment. However, when it’s mentioned the couple’s only rules are “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and “No jealousy,” we get a better idea about how non-monogamy might fail. It’s not the open relationship itself that’s framed as ridiculous, but how it is being attempted. While a conclusion isn’t reached regarding any of the relationships in the play, there’s enough revealed that the audience might walk away with an understanding of what went wrong and how one might right those wrongs.
This is a show marketed as being about millennials, but it treats its subjects with more care than most journalism on the same topic. Perhaps the best way to actually portray this generation, even in a script soaked in occasionally over-the-top drama and satire, is to show ways of living that are now more open and common, and how they can be complicated, troublesome, and normal. It’s not perfect; few plot conclusions are made, it began to feel long past the halfway point, and the ending was puzzlingly vague. But how Ex Habitus approached its characters’s personal lives, despite how absurd or wretched their personalities may be, was unexpectedly refreshing.
Ex Habitus continues through September 3 at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory, as part of the Corkscrew Theater Festival. Tickets are $24.