Organic Theater Company
Greenhouse Lab Theater
Let’s start with the good news. In its never-ending quest for bold new voices and wonderful imaginations, Organic Theater seems to have stumbled upon a real find. Playwright Eric Berg displays a brilliant creativity and well-trained ear for dialogue in Organic’s excellent production of his latest effort, Role Play, in the Greenhouse space. The bad news is that there are only about 60 minutes of original and inventive theater in Berg’s play and it runs a little under two hours. It’s going to need a lot of cutting, focusing, and developing if it’s ever to reach the potential it appears to have.
Chris (Rafer Weigel) is the classic teenage underachiever, a character who should be familiar to anyone who went to school in the ‘burbs or bought an album by Rush. Never able to come to terms with his parents’ divorce and his mom’s remarriage to a schmuck, Chris blows off school and immerses himself in the role-playing fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. After school Chris and his buddies Robert (David Vanwert), Alex (Sean Patrick Hayes), and Jenny (Karen Hough) can escape their sorry existence as outcasts and dweebs and live out their fantasies of being knights and thieves, saving damsels in distress and fighting the evil monster Crag; a cool, detached Dungeon Master (Andrew J. Turner) rolls the dice that determine their fates.
As summer ends and high school rolls around, the teens in Berg’s play must choose real-life roles. Since Chris is not athletic enough to be a jock or talented enough to be an actor, he withdraws from high school society. Once Jenny, the object of his teenage crush, turns her attention from Dungeons and Dragons to cheerleading and the captain of the football team, Chris gradually becomes unable to separate reality from his fantasies. With the aid of the Dungeon Master in his mind, Chris begins to plot revenge against his own personal demons–his stepfather and Jenny’s lover. What begins as an innocent game of imagination turns into something horrifyingly violent and real.
The best scenes in Role Play are those in which Chris and his pals play their game. The imagery evoked by their fantasies is fascinating, and the exchanges between the young teens are hilarious, crisp and believable. When the game begins to take over Chris’s mind, his transformation from alienated teen to psychopath is plausible and chilling. Berg works up a great deal of suspense without ever getting pretentious.
Sometimes his pacing is leaden, however, and he often treats characters other than Chris as stereotypes. Jenny in particular is too much of a dippy chick, never developing a personality of her own. The dumb-jock stereotype also emerges full force, as bullying macho dudes spit goobers on unsuspecting geeky freshmen. Couldn’t Berg have picked types other than football players and cheerleaders? Given the vivid imagination elsewhere in the play, one would expect him to come up with something more original than the plot of a two-minute 50s song. The adults are also two-dimensional, from Chris’s pedantic, bow-tied English teacher to the swishy, frantic high school theater director.
The play also takes what seems like forever to get going, with far too much loosely written exposition. A couple of scenes from a high school production of Romeo and Juliet do advance Berg’s notions about teens locked into their roles and foreshadow the play’s tragic end, but they should probably be cut to keep the play moving. The conclusion also needs a bit of work. Once the plot’s gears start turning, Role Play heads toward what seems an obvious and inescapable climax, only to veer off in an unexpected direction. But rather than follow through on his inspired twist, Berg gives us the most predictable windup, letting his script and the audience down with some sketchily written stylized violence.
Organic’s production almost compensates for the inadequacies of Berg’s script, with exceedingly good acting from just about everybody in the cast of ten and razor-sharp direction from Paul Frellick. Robert G. Smith’s ingenious rotating set gives the feeling that the action is spanking along. A few cuts here and there and some rethinking and development of the characters, and Organic could have a cult hit on its hands.