Playwright: Jennifer Haley. At: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-528-9696; www.strawdog.org; $28. Runs through: Nov. 10
It's a video game, you seean interactive amusement conducted via computers connected on-line to render it a team sport, even when the participants, who often assume alternative identities, are miles apart physically. The particular game titled "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" is constructed around a scenario involving a quiet American community terrorized by Hollywood-style zombieshideous reanimated corpses who roam the night seeking to devour innocent mortals. The kicker is that the game board can be customized to look like your surroundings, right down to the floor plans of homes and names of the residents dwelling therein.
Theatergoers who have never played video games (like me) might recall The Twilight Zone and other classic TV series featuring morality fables disguised as science fiction, though the literary form dates back centuries, to a time when the metaphorical boundaries between myth and reality were far less circumscribed. Jennifer Haley's smart critique of affluent suburban parenting skills may employ high-tech tools in making its case, but any intergenerational culture shock generated thereby swiftly dissipates to locate audiences of all ages in a dramatic environment immediately recognizable from a legacy of caveats on letting our imaginations run away with us.
What distinguishes Haley's thematic approach from that of its slash-and-giggle associates is that never do we see actors staggering stiff-legged while swaddled in cadaver drag, nor do we hear choruses of shrieks and groans. In the universe of virtual battles waged with crayon-hued weapons, death is silent and bloodlessnot unlike the abuse endured by spiritually neglected adolescents dwelling in widely-scattered McMansions under the supervision of authority figures oblivious to the malaise bred of isolation and a steady diet of martial fantasy. By the time a lone matron discovers the key to stopping the slaughter, however, it's too late.
A mere four actors representing an entire subdivision's worth of families is no easy task, especially when required to swap personae at the speed demanded by the 70-minute running time (although Haley is savvy enough to have them frequently address each other by name), but director Joanie Schultz reins in her cast well short of camp caricature, instead allowing the paranoia to arise from the very banality of what passes for filial conversation within this social stratum. Gamers in attendance may snicker at the inside jokes but Rod Serling, wherever he may be, would certainly approve the lesson we take away with us.