*published on 23 Nov 2015 in The EDGE
Let me say from the get-go that I am not a fan of video games, but I am a huge fan of the Flea theater in TriBeCa and especially their program to encourage and utilize a young, resident acting troupe called The Bats. With that prejudice out of the way, I attended “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” with trepidation and left feeling that once again this wonderful theater has a presence and a mission that never fails to, at the very least, shake its audience.
The action takes place on a raked stage evocatively painted to represent gardens and streets, well wrought by designer Simon Harding. This represents a quiet neighborhood ruled with an iron hand by a Neighborhood Association. Here, every aspect of life from lawn height to the position of garden gnomes is tightly regulated.
And yet behind closed doors, the adolescents of Neighborhood 3 are addicted to a video game, which recreates their own geography and personal iconography exactly. The GPS map allows teenagers to battle zombies in their own neighborhood, even in their own houses. Parents try with decreasing success to coax kids from their rooms with cars, hamburgers, interventions and affection; all to no avail.
The play, written with an acid tongue for dialog and great wit by Jennifer Haley, premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville; this is the New York City debut. It is directed with great aplomb by Joel Schumacher, whose wonderful work we know as a writer on “Car Wash,” “St Elmo’s Fire,” “Flatliners” and a few installments of the “Batman.” As well, he directed a number of episodes of the mega-hit “House of Cards.”
A narrator instructs the players on what to do to achieve maximum success in the level sets each scene. It is exactly like watching the gamers set their sites on getting a grenade, or a money clip or in this case garden shears, or a sugar fix. The teenagers all refer to their parents by their first names and seem unable to recognize the danger in being so detached from the linear world.
There are about eight different scenes or levels each artfully populated by a cast of 16, all excellent. The Flea has a policy of a one-sheet program that only lists the participants so I can’t delineate who played what character. They represent parents and children all involved in an elaborate game both in real life or AWK (away from keyboard) and on screen.
The issues raised by the play seemed terrifying to me as the mother to grown children attempting to tether them back to real life and away from screens of all sizes and ilks. However the very young audience thought that there were moments of grand hilarity.
I know from reading Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal work on childhood and the power of fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment,” that it is paramount for little kids to be able to envision killing their mothers or isolating their siblings thus Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and on and on. Perhaps video games provide the same kind of relief from an unempowered life for whomever plays them.
In “Neighborhood 3,” the Shakespearean contrivance of a play within a play finally unites as the kids reach the final terrifying level and one kid seamlessly segues from ignoring and excoriating his mother to actually murdering her with the hammer that was his final level weapon. We see the massacre in an off-stage shadow and when he returns to his game station he finally breaks down weeping. Curtain.
Again perhaps it is the confluence of slaughters in Paris and Mali, across the Middle East, and in movie theaters and elementary school across America, but playing at this level of violence is not entertaining or diverting to me, but rather a terrifying example of a world gone mad.
I applaud the Flea and the panoply of actors and creative stuff that brought this play to fruition, as many in the audience seemed tickled pink.
“Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” runs through Dec. 20 at The Flea, 41 White Street in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-226-0051 or visit www.theflea.com