Rated M for Mature
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 22, 2012
Greg Ayers' dark comedy of teen-male alienation begins with worried mother Susan and stepdad Larry plundering their son Eric's messy room to understand why his GPA and social life are suffering. Diving into the chaos looking for drugs, they find a journal that reveals the true problem: an obsession with online gaming. In real life, Eric and his friends are outcasts and social ciphers—online, they reimagine themselves as necromancers, wizards, and healers, defeating their enemies in atavistic wars. Mom confiscates the computer and starts a power game of enraged adolescents-versus-confused parents that builds to brutal climax. The connection between virtual reality and real-life violence is timely and relevant—but like a teenager's room, the play is kind of a mess.
Early on, Eric's friend gleefully describes a computer game that allows players to execute a virtual high school massacre. This frightening image seems to foreshadow a very scary outcome; but Ayers' tone waivers and his point-of-view loses focus. At first, we follow Eric's story, and Ben Hollandsworth—the strongest feature of this production—is wonderful at portraying a troubled teen we can care about. The play is most engaging when it puts Eric under the microscope. An interview with a school counselor suggests Eric's vulnerability and points out the insensitivity of adults. But after winning us over to Eric's side, Ayers makes what I would call a wrong move by allowing Eric's psychopathic friend Pete to take over the story and pushing Eric to the sidelines. The ultimate showdown between Pete and Eric's mother involves hostage taking, threats of rape, and firearms—but by the time the trigger is pulled, the situation has lost credibility and impact.
Other than the generic furniture and the detritus of props strewn the floor, the production is short on design and staging. A bare-bones approach is fair game, but here it allows the script's awkward points—loose plot threads, unexplored conflicts, overwritten and sometimes clunky dialog—to appear very exposed. A tendency towards hysterical acting does little to help. Paul Dobie directs all his actors' performances to start at a histrionic pitch; by the time things get really serious, they have nowhere to go. Hollandsworth alone finds something honest and human under his ranting and raging; he offers the most empathetic portrayal in the production, so I was sorry when the playwright abandoned his character. In the final moments, we are meant to see a youth so traumatized with reality he withdraws into his online world, maybe permanently, but we've missed a few steps in understanding how Eric gets to this state. Ayers' game play isn't a winner yet, nor is it a total loss. It offers provocative ideas and a portrait of a teen loser, and with some strategic adjustments it could do better in the next round.