Spark Theater trolled Craigslist for its latest play, Casual Encounters/Missed Connections

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As a kid, playwright Sean Paul Mahoney was "totally obsessed" with the Madonna/Rosanna Arquette movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Both the voyeurism and the romance fascinated him, but in his mind, he was Arquette's character. "I always wanted to be that person that someone saw on the subway and thought was so awesome they just had to reach out," he says.

He still does, though that back story is now more technologically advanced. So when he embarked on his most recent artistic venture, Mahoney focused on what he sees as a modern equivalent: Craigslist.

"It's better than any romance novel or rom-com, though," he says, "because it's happening in real life."

Mahoney, who grew up here, moved to Los Angeles for a fifteen-year span that saw the rise of both online dating and Craigslist. The site, which combines the two outlets with its Casual Encounters (sex) and Missed Connections (lust) sections, was popular with his friends, whose stories fascinated him with their sheer ridiculousness. It was during this period that he originally came up with the idea for a play based on the website, though it took around a decade to finalize. Mahoney toyed with writing a short story on the subject or maybe a screenplay before finally turning the idea into a series of vignettes for Spark Theater in August 2011, and opens with a full production tomorrow night.

When he really starts thinking about online dating, the metaphor Mahoney eventually comes up with is that of pizza delivery. "We're living behind our computers, and people are just putting their private information out there and then ordering whatever they want," he says. "It's like ordering Dominos.We're living in this era where we're more isolated than ever before, but thanks to the Internet we have more options than we ever have. There's desperation and there's opportunity and there's hope and there's honestly just a whole lot of weirdness."

The first draft of Casual Encounters/Missed Connections found him surfing the Internet for the most profound but relatable stories he could find on the two sections of Craigslist, which later provided the fodder for his play.

In developing the posts past what was readily available online, Mahoney imagined what the people who wrote them were like and what issues played a role in their lives. The bawdy first draft, which even included a School House Rock-style musical number, has since been refined in hopes of exploring the theme with more insight than sexual humor. (Note: This doesn't mean some parts won't still be hilarious.)

"What it kept coming back to is that, as a writer, I'm a cultural anthropologist," Mahoney says. "I'm interested in why we do the things we do. I went back through and focused on why this is interesting to me, why this matters."

About half of the eleven posts he eventually selected originated in Denver, though he says he could create an entire play about the Missed Connections in Vegas alone. "I really looked for this diverse quilt of ads," Mahoney says. "But Vegas has the best Missed Connection ads you'll ever read in your entire life. Most of those didn't make it because I thought people wouldn't even believe they were real."

The first half of Casual Encounters/Missed Connections focuses on the first section of the site, and its setting is the typical living room, complete with fourth wall, while the Missed Connections section is set inside a coffee shop. (Starbucks, says Mahoney, is an overwhelmingly popular setting for almost romances. "People are always falling in love with their barista or the person who ordered a non-fat latte.")

Through 75 minutes and six actors, Mahoney's play takes a 28-person maximum audience (Spark's space is tiny) through vignettes based on real-life Internet hopes -- including a Casual Encounter search for a sperm donor. "This is a casual encounter, people looking for their baby daddy online," he says. "To me, that was like, 'Oh my god, we've gotten there. This is happening.' That says a lot about Internet culture to me but also speaks volumes about becoming a parent and the desperation for connection."

Despite the amount of time he spent scouring the underbelly of the Internet as research, Mahoney retains an optimistic outlook on online love. In his case, however, the most notable item he's found on Craigslist is a dining room table. "I'm totally bummed that I never had a missed connection," he says. "I would have loved that."

See the play at Spark, located at 240 South Broadway, at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through February 18.

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