At Strawdog, the gamers are too close for comfort

THEATER REVIEW: "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" at Strawdog Theatre ★★

Kendra Thulin and Leah Karpel in  "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" at Strawdog Theatre.

Kendra Thulin and Leah Karpel in "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" at Strawdog Theatre. ( / October 3, 2012)

So what if the teenager zapping digital zombies in the bedroom upstairs right now actually went out marauding through your neighborhood with her friends, ready to vaporize, say, the unsuspecting family kitty?

That's the nightmarish scenario imagined by the new show "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" from the Strawdog Theatre Company. Given the ongoing fusion of GPS-driven technology, Google Glass and other such personalizing manifestations of our great technological universe, it's far from an absurd notion.

One member of my household loves to go out geocaching — a kind of GPS-driven treasure hunt in very real places — which is little more than a benign manifestation of what playwright Jennifer Haley is talking about here. This 75-minute drama has mapped out its terrain very well, and the imaginary game surely hangs together. In any kind of dystopian drama, it's always a good thing to have the audience thinking "this could easily happen," and, on Thursday night, I thought that constantly, if only about the basic premise.

For it's not entirely clear what Haley wants to say about her compelling notion of video games taking over suburban subdivisions, at least beyond the usual thing of the parents just don't know, and can't understand, what those crazy kids are doing. And director Joanie Schultz's Strawdog production suffers mightily from an inability to settle into any kind of consistent style that provides a necessary sense of the landscape.

If one is following the time-tested rules of horror and manufactured terror, the establishment of truth and normalcy generally is the best precursor to, say, a teenage rampage leaving blood in the streets. That way, you amp up the contrast between the two worlds and intensify the action. But it's very hard to tell if that was Schultz's aim here.

Kendra Thulin, who plays one of the neighborhood moms and is an unflaggingly honest actress, seems to be playing, well, a realistic neighborhood mom. And yet Mike Dailey, who plays one of the neighborhood dads, is doing something entirely different — he's offering a kind of overripe parody of the type. The younger characters are similarly all over the map. Sam Hubbard, who plays the male half of the duo of teen gamers, is generally naturalistic, even when he gets carried away, whereas Leah Karpel, the teen girl, is so way out there right from the start, she could only be commenting on her type. So which is it? All in all, you just can't get a handle on what world we inhabit.

Some of this issue comes from a script that could lose some of its formative hipster-pretension and make more of the hard choices (the characters go by the names "Father Type" and the like, which clearly was not helpful for this director). But the production problem is pervasive: If you don't believe in the neighborhood, you don't care when they come to destroy it.

It's just very difficult to combine the tropes of horror or thriller, which requires such belief, and self-aware parody, which requires different layers of cleverness. The desired cocktail does not fizz here. We go from fake blood on the wall to meta this, that and the other. And the language of the piece just doesn't pop in this emotionally stilted production, which has a lot of swallowed prose.

Schultz does craft a very interesting last 10 minutes (borrowing an idea from David Cromer's "Our Town") and suddenly switching to a kind of hyper-realism allowing you to view this landscape from numerous angles in a deft piece of technologically enhanced staging. But by then it's very late in the game, played in an invulnerable world that offers some mild thrills but never envelops.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Nov. 10

Where: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Tickets: $28 at 866-811-4111 or strawdog.org

CHICAGO

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