You get zero points for guessing how “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” ends: Jennifer Haley’s play about a hyper-immersive first-person-shooter is many things, but surprising is not one of them. Hell, in the first scene, the characters outright tell you what’s going to happen. “You’re about to play this video game, and you think it’s just a game, but actually it’s real, but these teenagers don’t know it, but the audience knows it,” one oblivious teenager tells another oblivious teenager in the first two minutes of the play.
The video game in question is a massively multiplayer online game called “Neighborhood 3,” which uses state-of-the-art satellite technology to map out the player’s suburb, and overlays hordes of zombies into the virtual neighborhood for the player and their teammates to dismember. Think of it as the bastard offspring of Left 4 Dead and Pokemon Go (neither of which existed when Haley wrote the play back in 2008).
“Neighborhood” is all the rage among the neighborhood’s teenagers, to their parents’ chagrin and/or horror: my child’s teammate could be our next-door neighbor… or they could be a pedophile! (“Or both,” said child snarks.) Of course, the truth is far more sinister than anyone expects, and as the teens make their way towards “Neighborhood 3”’s final level, the lines between the game and reality begin to blur. No one is safe, because, as the game warns the player, “if you die in the final chapter, you don’t resurrect!”
How spooky. What’s especially spooky is that Haley’s plot is suspiciously similar to the craptastic 2006 slasher flick “Stay Alive,” which infamously spawned the phrase “if you die in the game, you die IN REAL LIFE!” You can’t throw me off with your trail with judicious thesaurus use, Jennifer Haley: I know what you did last decade!
Don’t confuse my sarcasm for disdain, though: “Neighborhood 3” is fantastic, despite its hackneyed premise.
As is usually the case with Brooklyn College productions, the talented ensemble cast goes a long way in making “Neighborhood 3” shine. Each actor plays four different characters, grouped together by age and gender: Johnathan Dougan and Matty Sangare play an array of distant sons and disaffected daughters, respectively, while Ashley Arnett and Jimmy Morgan play several out-of-touch suburban moms and dads. It’s a testament to the quality of these four actors (and Sherry Wu’s understated costume design) that I did not realize that there were only four of them until halfway into the performance. Of the four, Arnett gives the standout performance in the final scene, when her laissez-faire “cool mom” facade breaks to reveal the desperate rage beneath, but everyone hits their material out of the park.
But at its heart, “Neighborhood 3” is a slasher flick, not a character drama; and like any good slasher flick, the characters necessarily take a backseat to the atmospherics. Consider the play’s narration, performed by Uki Pavlovic, insofar as you can call standing motionless behind a gauzy screen a performance. His distorted voice echoes throughout the darkened theater, punctuated by bright lights and electronic sounds. Director Kevin Ray deserves some credit here, but the entire design team does a great job. Michael Redman’s projection design and Itohan Edoloyi’s lighting design are used in tandem to dazzling effect, plunging the stage into a “Matrix”-esque digital void during scene transitions; Daniela Hart’s abrasive sound design takes its cues from antique arcade games and modern EDM, lending an appropriate (albeit loud) unease to the whole affair.
In many ways I was reminded of the opening production of the 2016-2017 season, Caryl Churchill’s “Fen” (dir. Mary Beth Easley). While the pixilated flash of “Neighborhood 3” might seem diametrically opposed to the earthy mystique of “Fen,” both productions put atmosphere above character to the same overall effect, transporting the audience into a space that’s not quite of this world.
“Neighborhood 3” is very much style over substance, but it is a substantive play, albeit entirely by accident. Haley first wrote the play in 2008, back when Twitter was a punchline and smartphones a novelty; in 2017, where Internet trolls decide presidential elections and GIFs can be used as murder weapons, Haley’s play perfectly captures the zeitgeist.
“What is our relationship to digital technology?” Ray asks in the director’s note. “In what ways does our relationship to digital technology impact our relationships with family members, friends, and neighbors?” These are questions that grow more relevant with every passing year, to be sure, but Haley goes deeper than that. In one scene, a father discovers (to his understandable outrage) that his daughter’s been taking cell phone pictures of her breasts and sending them to strangers. It’s not smut, she sneers, it’s currency. She uploads revealing photos of herself to the game and trades them for upgrades. It’s a thoroughly revolting exchange, more stomach-churning than any shambling corpse: in the virtual world, female sexuality is a commodity to be bought and sold. And the real scary part? The real world is no different.
“Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” will have its last performance on Tuesday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Lower Manhattan. The next Brooklyn College theater production will be “Detroit ‘67” by Dominique Morisseau (dir. Shariffa Ali), which will show in the new Buchwald Theater. For more information on the Brooklyn College Department of Theater’s spring lineup, visit their website, http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/theater/index.html.