Caught in the Web
dark play explores the Internet's ugly side
Did you know the word "gullible" isn't in the dictionary?
In dark play or stories for boys at Actor's Express, 16-year-old Adam (Brent Rose) seems like exactly the kind of naïve lunk who'd fall for that old ploy. Rose never sounds more credulous than when Adam declares, "I'm not gullible," and wears a blank expression that convinces us of just the opposite.
Adam's innocence, particularly regarding the Internet, makes him easy prey for 14-year-old Nick (Jimi Kocina), a callous manipulator worthy of Shakespeare's Iago. Like Alfred Hitchcock with DSL, dark play by Carlos Murillo presents an engrossing, psychosexual thriller that grasps the Internet's innate ability to bring out human ugliness.
Addressing the audience throughout the show, Nick initially affects a callous attitude worthy of a contemptuous rock star as he extols his talent for deceiving people. After discovering Adam's online declaration, "I want to fall in love," Nick invents Rachel, a young woman who doesn't exist but becomes the girl of Adam's dreams. Stephanie Bruno plays Rachel, even though we understand that her words belong to Nick in chat-room conversations. When Nick begins meeting Adam face-to-face while keeping "Rachel" under wraps, Kocina gradually reveals the soft spots in Nick's armor. He's not just a sociopath, but a desperately lonely boy who craves Adam's attentions for himself.
Based on a true incident, dark play marks the first show directed by Freddie Ashley since becoming the theater's artistic director, and he strikes a steady balance between crisp comedy and dramatic heft. John Benzinger and Stacy Melich play multiple roles and get some huge laughs as various clueless "netizens" stumbling about the World Wide Web. Despite being a steamy show, dark play doesn't reveal as much skin as you expect from erotic material at the Express, possibly because the characters (if not the actors) are minors.
The only conspicuous flaw in dark play is redundancy. Nick recounts the tale in flashback, and throughout the action cuts back to himself in the throes of a present-day dilemma, repeating "The question! The choice!" Not only does the device interrupt the narrative momentum, the wording and performance style prove nearly identical each time and become maddeningly repetitive, as if the play won't let us forget that we're watching a flashback. Thanks, but we get it.
Otherwise, dark play evolves into a skin-crawling romantic triangle, like an evil version of Cyrano de Bergerac, only with webcams and instant-messaging instead of poetic letters. You'll never read a MySpace profile in quite the same way ever again.
dark play (stories for boys). Through Oct. 6. $21.50-$27. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7 and 9:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 5 p.m. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. 404-607-SHOW. www.actors-express.com.