It's a play about a video game about killing zombies, but don't be fooled. Bricolage's production of Jennifer Haley's inventive script is as striking a show as I've seen this year.
One key to its success is a risky choice by director Matt M. Morrow and the Bricolage cast and crew: Most of the dialogue, and most of the action, are rendered in highly stylized terms. From Scene 1 on, all the actors (a cast of four and a off-stage voice) speak in the halting, nearly affectless tones of video-game characters. Their gestures are similarly confined to a limited range. And to top it off, the actors generally face not each other, but offstage somewhere -- mostly toward the audience.
In theater, you can get away with a lot of things you can't on film, where photo-realism is requisite even if you're depicting Mordor or something. Theatrical sets, by contrast, are often abstractions, like Stephanie Mayer-Staley's genius stage design for this show falls. (The plastic walls, for example, have human-silhouette cutouts from which the actors emerge, like onscreen avatars; the pièce de résistance is a teen-ager's complete bedroom that pops from the stage floor.)
But theater audiences are still accustomed to realism from their actors. So having the cast portray what seem to be crude cartoon versions of disaffected suburban youth and the clueless parents around them might alienate ticket-buyers right off.
Yet this cast trusts Haley's words enough to unify the script's humanistic perspective and the production style's satirical edge. Bjorn Ahlstedt and Jacqui Farkas play, respectively, the "son type" and the "daughter type," while Tony Bingham and Tami Dixon excel as the "father" and "mother" types. (The prerecorded offstage voice, which delivers gaming clues, belongs to Randy Kovitz.)
This show works so well not in spite of the stylization, but because of it. In almost Brechtian fashion, the acting style lets us see these kids and parents as beings trapped in prefab social roles -- the lecturer, the sulker -- unable to see any way out. In the odd scene where a "real" kid talks to a "fake" parent, the domestic and generational alienation Haley is depicting is brought to a fine point. It's as if the kid who we assume is playing the game is instinctively satirizing his own parent.
Thus are the lines between the play's reality and its fantasy compellingly blurred, which is one of Haley's cautionary themes. Another highlight is the scene -- sparklingly played by Dixon and Ahlstedt for both humor and terror -- where a "real" mom finds herself trapped in the game with her son's friend's oversized digital avatar.
The play's final scene takes place in that fabulous pop-up bedroom. Ironically enough, it's the production's only realistic set. And it's just here that the acting style goes fully "straight" to literally bring home the dangers not of video games, per se, but of living with people who've become strangers.
(Neighborhood 3 continues Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 28; 412-381-6999 or www.webbricolage.org)