Considering that the most recent edition of the ultraviolent video game Call of Duty racked up $550 million in sales in its first 72 hours of release this month, it’s safe to say that Jennifer Haley’s drama is timely. Depicting a Twilight Zone-like scenario in which the teenagers of a suburban community are so consumed by a role-playing, zombie-killing game that they fail to recognize the difference between reality and virtual reality, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom is likely to induce shudders in parents whose kids spend hours alone in front of their computers.
First seen in 2008 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, the work is receiving its New York premiere in the Flea Theater’s off-Broadway production, staged by veteran film director Joel Schumacher in only his second theatrical foray.
The piece — by a playwright who has evidenced a preoccupation with technological themes in such works as The Nether — is being performed by 17 members of the Flea’s resident acting company, the Bats, whose underpaid, nonunion status no doubt accounts for the proliferation of performers onstage.
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Here Haley conjures up a typical suburban enclave in which the teenagers have become almost enslaved by the titular game, which in fiendishly clever fashion uses GPS technology to re-create the player’s own neighborhood. The goal is to kill as many zombies as possible, using such easily found weapons as a hammer and hedge clippers. But it soon becomes evident that the game, whose instructions are intoned by an ominous voice, is causing its addicted players to confuse their parents with the zombies they’re hunting.
The play’s provocative premise is clumsily handled in both the writing and staging. The profusion of characters and short, tenuously connected scenes makes it confusing to follow. What should have been a tautly horrific exercise is instead a rambling affair featuring such bizarre moments as a father consoling his son over the death of their cat — yes, it has something to do with the game — by quoting both Henry David Thoreau and Charles Manson.
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For all his success creating such suspenseful Hollywood films as Flatliners, A Time to Kill and Phone Booth (his numerous cinematic turkeys will go unmentioned here), Schumacher reveals his theatrical inexperience with this amateurish staging.
Part of the problem is the bare-bones, low-tech production, which fails to give enough sense of what the game is like. But it’s hard to excuse such moments as when a teenage girl produces a golf club from behind a cardboard tree, only to have her father worriedly ask, “Where did you get that golf club?,” provoking unintended laughs. When a deranged character menacingly says, “I’m going to leave out these hedge clippers,” you can rest assured that they’ll immediately be illuminated by a spotlight. And the youthful castmembers often struggle to be convincing in their roles, especially when playing the middle-aged parents.
Still, the evening has some well-realized moments, such as when a young, Internet-abbreviation-spouting (“LOL,” “IRL,” “AFK“) player has a tension-filled encounter with a concerned mother who’s unwittingly been drawn into his game.
“I can’t kill you if you’re a player,” he tells her. “I’ll lose points.”
Think about that the next time you attempt to interrupt a young person immersed in virtual reality.
Cast: Adelind Horan, Alex Haynes, Eric Folks, Olivia Jampol, Cristina Pitter, Alexandra Curran, Brendan Sokler, Justin Ahdoot, Adam Alexander Hamilton, Lindsley Howard, Hank Lin, Sydney Blaxill, Madeline Mahoney, Connor Johnston, Kerry Ipema, Kevin Argus, Thomas Muccioli
Director: Joel Schumacher
Playwright: Jennifer Haley
Set designer: Simon Harding
Lighting designer: Brian Aldous
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Sound designer: Janie Bullard
Presented by the Flea Theater