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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

dark play or stories for boys
Theatre Exile

dark play
Krista Apple and Robert DaPonte
Over the last few seasons, Theatre Exile has made a specialty of challenging, sexually frank dramas like Bug, Killer Joe and Red Light Winter, Even when the plays were flawed, they stuck with you—not because of the sex, but because of intriguing characters and compelling stories. Their latest exploration of the dark side of nature, Carlos Murillo's aptly named dark play or stories for boys, will stick with you too, but for the wrong reasons. This tale of cyberstalking, told in the voice of the stalker, wallows in sleaziness to no good purpose. It's just exploitative for exploitation's sake.

Nick is fourteen years old and a victim of bullying. Thus he spends most of his free time in an Internet chat room, "the one place kids my age and demeanor could escape the cruel and unusual punishments assigned by your peers." It's there that he sees the profile of sixteen-year old Adam, who is online for only one reason: "I want to fall in love." Nick decides that Adam is too gullible to be believed and deserves to be taught a lesson, so Nick creates a new online persona: Rachel, who describes herself as a combination of Hillary Duff, Avril Lavigne and Natalie Portman. She's Adam's fantasy girl, and Nick uses Rachel to lure Adam into performing acts that grow increasingly sordid.

Why? Well, he uses as his inspiration his drama teacher's example of "dark play"—an acting game in which "certain players know the rules and other players don't." But there's nothing pleasant about this game the way Nick plays it, and there's nothing appealing about watching Nick play mind games with Adam. Even if we can't sympathize with Nick, we should at least get a kick out of seeing him carry out his low-key, one-man terror campaign. But, as played with a passive, pouty nonchalance by Robert DaPonte, Nick doesn't even seem to take much enjoyment in his evil behavior. He's not the type of villain you love to hate; instead, he's the type of villain you just hate. And Adam (Doug Greene) is so guileless and flat out stupid (not to mention underwritten) that it's hard to build up much sympathy for him as he slides further and further into a moral morass.

There's also no poetry to Murillo's dialogue. In a flashback framing scene (with Nick trying to explain himself to his college girlfriend), Nick describes the panic going through his mind: "The world around me slows like it's moving through peanut butter." That's not a terrible line the first time you hear it, but when it's repeated seven times in a 90-minute show, it can't help but sound inane and annoying.

Nick's drama teacher tells him, "The best theatre is theatre that challenges the audience. That provokes. That's dangerous." But, as staged by director Deborah Block, the problem with dark play is that it's not provocative enough. The sex scenes aren't sexy, and the violent climax is mechanical and sadly lacking in danger. Still, the supporting cast is fine, especially Krista Apple, who generates laughs and sympathy in a number of supporting roles; she gives the show its only touches of humanity.

Cyberstalking is a serious problem; parents really should be concerned about whether their children are safe when they're online. But even though Murillo's play was inspired by a true story, you won't gain many insights into this troubling issue from watching dark play. There's no story arc to Nick—he starts out slimy and unlikable, and he ends up slimy and unlikable. At the end of the tale, Nick has not learned any lessons from his monstrous behavior, and neither has the audience. Except, perhaps, to stay away from any future plays by Carlos Murillo.

dark play or stories for boys runs through December 7, 2008, and is presented by Theatre Exile at The Theatre at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$40 and are available by calling 215-922-4462 or online at www.theatreexile.org.

dark play or stories for boys
By Carlos Murillo
Directed by Deborah Block
Stage Manager... Eric Snell
Set Designer... Adam Riggar
Graphic Designer... Brenna Geffers
Lighting Designer... Krista Billings
Sound Designer/Composer... Chris Colucci
Costume Designer... Alison Roberts

Cast:
Nick... Robert DaPonte
Molly/Rachel... Katie Gould
Adam... Doug Greene
Male Netizen... Dave Johnson
Female Netizen... Krista Apple


Photo: Cory Frisco


-- Tim Dunleavy



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