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The second play in the current season for Manbites Dog Theater is a 2008 work by West Coast playwright Jennifer Haley with the lengthy and somewhat foreboding title of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. It is a fun tale, magnificently presented, that grabs at our curiosity; but the meaning of the work turns out to be an old adage rather than a new way of thinking, and unfortunately the quick among us figure that out all too soon into the play.
Manbites Dog’s artistic director Jeff Storer has taken this work and given it the royal Manbites treatment, with a stellar cast, magnificent soundtrack, a true black box staging designed by Mary Wayne-Thomas, and sensational sound effects thanks to Marc Maximov. The preshow music alone had the audience complimenting it and that includes yours truly. The cast, consisting of 16 different characters, is played by only a five-actor team, which tightens the action and keeps us wondering who is speaking to whom — a relevant conundrum when the lines between reality and imagination disappear. We see the cast members as icons rather than individual characters. Lenore Field plays “The Mom” (of which there are four: Leslie, Vicki, Barbara and Joy); Michael O’Foghludha plays “The Dad” (Steve, Doug, and Tobias); Mary Michelle Guthrie is “The Daughter” (Makaela, Kaitlyn, Madison, Chelsea); and Lucius Robinson plays “The Son” (Trevor, Ryan, Jared, Blake), as well as Blake’s avatar, a seven-foot warrior named zombiekilr14. Rounding out the cast is Byron Jennings II as the NetherLord (my name, not his); he’s the individual within the computer game “Neighborhood 3” that oversees all this virtual reality, by giving the kids their directions.
All the parents are concerned because all the kids are playing computer games to the exclusion of everything else. But most parents consider it a phase and do not take it seriously. The kids, however, take it very seriously indeed, because the goal is to free their own neighborhood of the zombie hordes which are overrunning it, then, in “The Final Chapter,” take their parents and escape the doomed neighborhood through “The Last House.” The trouble is, all the zombies look like the parents.
You can see where this is going. It’s a logical conclusion. The lines between virtual reality and actual reality blur and then disappear for the kids, so that they are actually playing the game not only on their computers but also within their own neighborhood. As more and more kids (all high school age) reach “The Final Chapter,” sirens begin going off all over the suburb; and more and more houses are ending up wrapped with yellow police tape.
Lenore Field gives four very interesting and individual snapshots of your typical urban mom, from the very detached (“I’m watching CSI!”) to the very distraught (Barbara’s “Oh My God! Oh My God!”). They are each etched with very real characteristics and also very convincing, even when Barbara actually views and converses with an avatar from the game.
Michael O’Foghludha creates a triad of unique characters as well, from the man too often away from home (Steve) to the man who no longer works at all (Tobias) in order to keep the grass trimmed so his dead children may dance. Tobias is not as crazy as you might think, and certainly no more so, by the end of the show, than his neighbors. Byron Jennings does his role with the right amount of urgency to spur his minions to action, as well as supplementing it with acts of his own.
But the show belongs to the kids. Lucius Robinson has the most fun with some very intriguing high school-angst guys, but blows us all away as zombiekilr14, sporting a giant frame and wielding a bloody claw hammer. Mary Guthrie has opposite poles to recreate, from a Goth freak with the devil’s hoof prints on her t-shirt, to the very respectable and bespectacled young woman who used to be Cody’s main squeeze. In every case, characterizations are spot-on and tight, intertwining with each other just as illusion and reality commingle onstage.
I must quote here a character who was himself, most of the time, an illusionist. In the original “Wild, Wild West,” Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon tells a lovely lass about her jewelry: “It’s very nicely cut, and very beautifully set, but — well, no matter how you cut it, glass is, ah, glass.” Despite very excellent staging and precise and interesting characterizations, very little can pull us away from the too-much-touted (and very probably true but) overstated omen that kids should, by no means, be allowed to play so many video games, or there will be hell to pay.
Manbites Dog Theater always puts on an excellent show, bringing to the stage works, done tremendously well, that give us new perspectives and have us seeing things in a new light. This show is no exception. But playwright Jennifer Haley is just a little too heavy-handed in her underlying moral, and she bangs the drum slowly in a refrain that is repeated way too often.
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom will run through March 6th at Manbites Dog Theater. For details, see our theatre calendar.