Don’t Hate the Player

First impressions count for a lot. In Dan Wilson’s new play Just One More Game, Marjorie and Kent have met through an online matchmaking site and are on their first date. Both are fortysomething gamers, not just for fun but as a profession. She reviews videogames under a pseudonym and he works on them as a programmer. That means that in addition to the usual feeling out of whether the other person is some kind of creep, there are also a lot of tests or whether each other are real geeks or some kind of poseurs.

Linda-Ruth Cardozo and ChrisDeJong in Just One More Game. Photo by Dan Wilson.

My own first impression was off to a rough start. The website of the producing company, Triple Shot Productions, listed the show time as 7 p.m., so I rushed over there after work and showed up, sweating and out of breath, to find that the show was actually at 8 p.m. and had always been at 8 p.m.  (The show times on the site have since been corrected.) But that hour was well spent having the dinner I hadn’t had time to eat beforehand and moving from grumbling back to a state of receptivity.

That’s a good thing, because the play is awfully charming. The premise of this romantic comedy is as simple as it is dubious: that love and dating are a lot like videogames. What makes the idea work is how thoroughly the playwright commits to it. Wilson also did the videography for the show, and he’s created perfectly appropriate video accompaniment, with 1980s-era video games in the background appropriate to the each individual scene.

Onscreen when we enter is the intro text from the Zork text adventure game, which actually plays into the plot more than once. When the show starts the screen shows someone picking the characters for the play the way they would in a Street Fighter­-style game, as the actors stand in action poses mirroring their pixilated doppelgangers behind them. A racquetball game has Pong graphics in the background, and a scene in a car shows a primitive driving game of about that same level of graphics. The first time they go to a bar, the background looks like the old Tapper arcade game, with a bartender sliding mugs to agitated customers. A second bar looks like a fantasy tavern from The Legend of Zelda or something similar. (I’m no connoisseur.) Beers drunk are shown affecting the characters’ stats, with strength and charisma increasing and intelligence and dexterity decreasing. A fight, of course, goes straight to Mortal Kombat, because who could resist using “Finish him!”?

Besides the omnipresent video, director Bahati Bonner (full disclosure: an old friend of mine) gives the play a bare-bones staging. The set by Bonner and Wiljago Cook (another friend) consists of a wooden platform with a large chest atop it that can also be used as a bench. Two coat racks on either side of the stage are full of costumer Scarlett Kellum’s many changes of street clothes for the couple to mark the passing of time.

Both of the lovers are socially awkward in believable and familiar ways. Christopher DeJong’s Kent is thoughtful and mild-mannered, but he’s also uncommunicative and hard to read, and he keeps his annoyance bottled up until he blurts out things he’ll regret. Linda-Ruth Cardozo’s Marjorie is a forceful personality, forward and sardonic, though her cultivated don’t-give-a-fuck-ness is also a defense mechanism because she’s been burned too many times already. Both are free-range geeks who pepper their flirtations with constant gaming references (“I’m glad you rolled for initiative”), but they also talk about Star Trek and both have Doctor Who theme ring tones (sound design by Cook). There’s a helpful glossary in the program to clue in the less nerdily inclined.

As NPCs 1 and 2 (that stands for non-player characters, for any nongamers out there), Candace Brown and Vonn Scott Bair play a charming assortment of waiters, rowdy drunks, boorish old friends from college, and busybody parents constantly nagging for grandchildren.

The dialogue is very on the nose; people say exactly what they mean, and there’s a fair amount of exposition. But it’s also funny and charming enough that it doesn’t often sound stiff. As a romantic comedy, the play does the basic thing it needs to do, which is to get you to like these characters for all their flaws and hope that they can get their shit together enough not to screw this up. But Wilson also does a good job at making the videogame angle seems like more than just gratuitous nostalgia. Mostly it’s tied up in a speech Marjorie makes while writing her videogame column that makes the analogy explicit, likening the people you meet in life to the ones you encounter in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The argument is clever enough that it doesn’t have to be persuasive; what matters is that this is how she thinks of it, and it’s encouraging to be sure that he thinks the same way. “I’m tired of being a solo player,” Kent says. “I want someone to play with.”  When he puts it that way, don’t we all?

Just One More Game
Through March 30
Triple Shot Productions
Exit Theatre
156 Eddy Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #29 of 2013, attended March 15.

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