After years of ridiculously complicated birthday parties, my kid's mother and I finally gave in to inertia and, in his early teens, said to our precious treasure: "Look, just invite some friends over and we'll buy the pizza." I didn't want to know how six teen-age boys where going to entertain themselves until I saw their version of a "party": Two of them played a video game while the other four sat on the couch and watched.
And to think -- those were the good old days. Today each would be sitting in his own room as they played together online.
The solitary and sedentary nature of the cyberworld would seem to make the task of dramatizing it a challenge, but this is Jennifer Haley's aim in Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, receiving its local premiere with Bricolage.
To her credit, Haley doesn't waste time with backstory, so we are immediately plunged into the suburban landscape of detached parents and disaffected youth. A new video game has shown up: Neighborhood 3 -- which can turn the real neighborhood (including the actual houses and street plans) into the cyber-battleground where the players battle killer zombies.
Haley has a lot of fun rubbing real reality up against the virtual kind, and soon all the teen-agers have been totally absorbed into the game. Whether that absorption is physical as well as emotional is a question Haley takes great pains to leave ambiguous. Written without an intermission, Neighborhood 3 is an amusement-park ride -- you're strapped in at the beginning and propelled through a series of twists, turns and dips. Then you're dumped out at the end exhilarated, if slightly confused.
Like plays about writers, a play about video-game players could be hopelessly dull. (What's more boring than watching someone type?) But Haley resolutely keeps her characters away from the keyboard until the very end.
I should say that the human elements of the show are Haley's weakest: Parent and child shouting at each other over the span of a generation, against the sterile perfection of the suburbs, isn't, perhaps, the freshest item in the drama store. But Haley's constant fiddling with reality and perception more than overcomes that, and her script is wonderfully inventive and theatrical.
So is this Bricolage production, directed by Matt M. Morrow. On Stephanie Mayer-Staley's highly intriguing set, Morrow pulls out just about every theatrical trick he can think of to keep this production on track and off-kilter. Haley has supplied no end of very dark humor, and Morrow knows exactly when to play the joke while never loosening the tension; the build to play's climax is actually quite breathtaking. Jacqui Farkas, Björn Ahlstedt, Tony Bingham and Tami Dixon play several characters each, and play them with a harrowing intensity. Just as Haley has written them, these actors play the roles with force but with an opaque mystery as well.
I do have one question about stylization. The actors rarely look at each other when talking (usually staring at fixed points on opposite ends of the stage), and the lines are delivered with odd pauses, as if they're trying to replicate how computer voice-software sounds. I couldn't tell whether this was Morrow's doing or something in Haley's script, but I strenuously vote against it; it continually pulls us out of the action to remind us that we're merely sitting in a theater watching a play. Fortunately the device falls away toward the end, and Neighborhood 3 goes out with a great big bang.
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom continues through Nov. 29. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-381-6999 or www.webbricolage.org