Zombies in My NEIGHBORHOOD
There’s an intriguing idea behind Jennifer Haley’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, in which the world of online gaming—represented by a wildly popular first-person shooter set in a zombie-infested suburb—bleeds inexorably, and with gruesome consequences, into “real life.” The irony, of course, is that the virtual zombies are increasingly indistinguishable from the teenage gamers and their frightfully permissive parents.
Unfortunately, neither Haley, who premiered Neighborhood in 2008 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, nor Glass Mind Theatre, currently giving Neighborhood its Baltimore premiere, develop the ironies beyond the obvious. The play’s characters alternate between the abbreviated lingo of the Internet and over-articulate speeches fraught with thematic weight. “We thought that when we moved here we were moving up,” one parent reflects, “but all the neighborhoods are mirror images of each other.” A teenager drives home the point with an even heavier hand: “Every night with his fifth cocktail, Dad turns into a zombie.” In other words, well-trampled ground.
I would be interested to learn for how large a cast Haley envisioned this piece. In Glass Mind’s production, guest director Mary Rose O’Connor divides the fifteen roles listed in the program between only four actors. We hear references to Makaela, Vicki, Trevor, Blake (aka., zombiekllr14), but the owners of said names are practically interchangeable, both as written and, more often than not, performed. Only Rich Espey, who plays all the older men, makes a consistent effort to differentiate his characters through voice and posture; the other cast members—Alexis Martinez, as the older women; Elizabeth Galuardi, as the teenage girls; and Andrew Peters, as the teenage boys—change little beneath their costumes from one scene to the next.
Removed from the larger context of the play, individual scenes are effective and well acted—by turns funny, unnerving, and sad—but little seems to connect them beyond the ultimately vague notion that everyone is locked in battle with monsters that may or may not be metaphorical. Most of my energies were spent tracking who is related to whom, whose parent/child is in mortal danger, whose cat has just been killed, etc. If O’Connor’s intent is to de-individualize each character, thereby rendering such questions moot, then Espey’s performance in particular seems misguided, though I wish his fellow actors had followed his example. Haley bombards us with so many names and relationships, and devotes so much of her dialogue to exposition, I think the production would have benefited from a larger cast, allowing the actors to concentrate on developing one or two distinct people rather than three or four.
A larger cast might also have given O’Connor more opportunities to accentuate the lurking horror through staging—as is, the zombies remain an unseen, unheard menace. (Curiously absent from Liam O’Hanlon’s sound design are offstage shuffles, creaking doors, and similar portents of doom.) O’Connor builds some genuinely creepy moments out of silhouettes and flashlight beams, and she and her actors find a nice pace for the quieter scenes, suggesting that missed connections between people—and especially within families—cause more harm than any monster. On the other hand, the staging often leaves actors at awkward angles to each other and the audience; relatively simple adjustments—placing an imaginary television downstage rather than upstage, for example, or rotating a couch forty-five degrees—would have opened things up substantially.
Set designer Sarah Ford Gorman creates a backdrop of starkly framed houses, eerily illuminated by Jennifer Reiser’s lighting design and surrounding a floor on which a grid has been painted; during scene changes, the actors sometimes appear to be walking at strictly right-angles, as though trapped in an old-school computer game, but I cannot be sure this is intentional—another promising idea muddled by inconsistent execution.