As any viewer of “To Catch a Predator” knows, the Internet’s unique potential for empowering and shielding the unscrupulous provides the perfect setup for greater horrors to follow. When Carlos Murillo’s “Dark Play or Stories for Boys” stays within that cyber-realm, it’s riveting, but this twisted-teen computer romance, the talk of this year’s Louisville Humana Fest now in its West Coast premiere, tries to multitask and freezes up. Even the typically sumptuous production offered by the Theater @ Boston Court can’t keep this play from crashing.
The ghost in the machine is precocious, supercilious 14-year-old Nick (Stewart W. Calhoun), who, out of perversity and boredom, begins creating fake personas in Net chatrooms as a form of “dark play” — any game in which some participants aren’t aware of the rules or even of the game itself. It’s all quick ‘n’ dirty online bitchslapping until he encounters gangly, sensitive 16-year-old Adam (Adam Haas Hunter), whose advertised “I want 2 fall in love” simultaneously amazes, repels and attracts the younger boy.
Adam becomes the played and Nick the player once “Rachel,” Adam’s teen dream, begins appearing online to bewitch the youth. Master puppeteer Nick has the e-maginary gal pull the lovesick Adam all too willingly into an elaborate romantic and sexual fantasia, while hinting at a troubled home life that only whets his appetite to meet and protect her 4 real.
Where can it all lead? Nowhere good, judging by the chilling mood set by helmer Michael Michetti. Donna Marquet’s sleek black-box environment and ubiquitous computer monitors, moody lighting (Lap-Chi Chu highlights the action in boxes of light that appear and vanish like online pop-up windows) and an almost-constant thrum of electronic music transform us into willing voyeurs in the dens and bedrooms of the Net’s needy.
Yet the built-in limitations of an Internet affair create dramatic limitations as well.
We know Adam can never meet “Rachel,” so Murillo must have Nick introduce his own bad self into the mix and, somewhat predictably, both fall for and take a bead on Adam’s innocence. As Nick’s scheming spirals out of control, Murillo’s handling of the plot increasingly hinges on characters meeting in person to behave illogically and finally preposterously. The further “Dark Play” wanders from the chatroom, the more it beggars plausibility.
No help comes from expressionistic flash-forwards to Nick’s college dorm room, with actors spinning a girl on his bed as Nick incants “The question … the choice,” wondering whether he should confess to her. But the choice should be moot. The sociopath we’ve come to know, as smug as Leopold and Loeb, wouldn’t give a damn about telling a sex partner the truth, so the framing device just sits there in desultory staging that never builds, as if Michetti wished Murillo had hit “Delete” on those sequences as much as we do.
Show’s pleasures largely stem from the contrast between the cleverly staged exotic cyberspace and the humanity of its denizens. Though Nick is initially insufferable, his floridly self-conscious verbosity not requiring the italics and quotation marks a smirking Calhoun lays on with a trowel, he garners some vulnerability later on.
Haas’ instantly likable Adam wins sympathy as a helpless pawn, and Danielle K. Jones hits all the right keys personifying Nick’s ultimate creation, her vivacity and wit enough to pull anyone into her Web. As Rachel and Adam’s romance deepens through heartfelt entreaties and cutesy emoticons, evil genius Nick stands behind her, wordlessly orchestrating others’ doom like a Shiva of the computer age. :-(