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Toyer: An Unavoidable Tragedy

This Toyer is a grand experiment in theater, and the production far surpasses its outrageous script.

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In many ways, Toyer, by Gardner McKay, is a throwback to the '90s. A serial killer is on the loose (Silence of the Lambs, et al.). A strong, educated woman lives alone (Single White Female). A charming yet suspicious Average Joe shows up (The River Wild). There are opera references and snappy dialogue (every '90s movie). Shocking surprises ensue, and the tables constantly turn (The Crying Game). When Toyer premiered in 1993, it rode a wave of paranoid thrillers. That was the Decade of the Psycho Next Door. Put the lotion in the basket …

The actors who perform Toyer in a South Oakland apartment are too young to remember much of the '90s, but they play with astounding immediacy. Director Charlie Wein stages the two-person show in an actual living room, which accommodates only a handful of guests. Seated against the wall, the audience watches as Maude and Peter play their diabolical game. Will Peter drug Maude and lobotomize her? Or is this all a prank? Is Maude a plain psychiatrist, or does a darker secret lurk within her? Whatever is going on, here we are, seated only paces from potential killer and potential victim, powerless to stop their madness.

This Toyer is a grand experiment in theater, and the production far surpasses its outrageous script. Morgan Wolk and Jamie McDonald show a playful, youthful dynamic, and Wein directs them with clever precision. Staging the play in an actual domicile began as an act of desperation, because the nameless company couldn't find a space. But kitchen-sink realism feeds Toyer's relentless claustrophobia. Wein and his cohort have turned necessity into invention. And the invention works wonders.

I do have advice, though, for skeptics: Halfway through the first act, as things turn sinister, you may feel nihilistic. Toyer flirts with exploitation, and torture porn seems imminent. For a psychiatrist, Maude is incredibly trusting, and it's easy to picture her as a skin suit. But hang in there. Unless you are an actual serial killer, the twists are certain to satisfy you. There's even a quotable moral at the end (The Usual Suspects, et al.). A wrap-up that makes you smirk and cringe? Will flannel make a comeback too?

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