The relationship between virtual and real-world violence is probed in “First Person Shooter,” newish company SF Playhouse’s first world-premiere staging. Penned by Aaron Loeb, whose day job is operations chief at a local vidgame development firm, the drama does a generally strong job of juggling a complex narrative and thematic agenda. This tale of a school shooting whose teenage perps cite a gory video game as “inspiration” opened less than a month after the Virginia Tech massacre. The regrettable certainty that such events will continue to haunt American life could make it a hot item among small-to-midsized theaters.
In the California office of JetPack Games, testosterone runs high, befitting a workplace entirely devoted to the fulfillment of aggro adolescent-male fantasies. Founder and CEO Kerry (Craig Marker) is in some ways the most childlike of the bunch, rhapsodizing over programs he has created to achieve ever-more-realistic “death animation.”
But almost unbearably snarky, sharky marketing chief Tommy (Chad Deverman) and touchy lead artist Wilson (Sun Min Park) aren’t exemplars of maturity, either. Perpetually trying to rein in this squabbling boys’ club, producer Tamar (Kate Del Castillo) often resorts to tantrums herself.
If tempers are especially frayed now, that’s because the pressure is on to meet deadline in completing a “Megaton 2” prototype to show investors — who, like protags, stand to make a mint off the long-awaited sequel to the million-selling, ultraviolent stalk-and-shoot simulation. But collective high spirits nosedive when a Midwestern tragedy hits the news.
Two students, it seems, smuggled illegal weaponry into their high school in a carefully planned operation. Donning ski masks and paramilitary garb, they opened fire on classmates, killing 14 before they could be stopped.
To the horror of the JetPack team, it emerges that the perps left behind a videotape message in which they thanked their “clan” (which the media soon spins into an assumption they meant the Klan). They also gave props to the makers of “Megaton,” which the boys used as “practice” for their real-life mayhem. “You guys rock!” one chirps.
This provides a convenient scapegoat for pundits and politicos, a focus for rage among the grief-stunned families, and — naturally — a golden opportunity for lawyers. Several parents sign onto the lawsuit hatched by a famous legal eagle that will (in the words of Park as latter’s flunky Lee) “hold responsible some of the people responsible for some of the evil in this world.” By suing JetPack for millions, of course.
African-American farmer Daniel (Adrian Roberts), who lost his only son in the massacre, is reluctant to join the suit. But second wife Rose (Susi Damilano) shrilly insists they do so — whether out of grief or greed is unclear, perhaps even to Rose herself.
Unable to bear being linked to such real-world violence, Kerry falls apart. Meanwhile, with JetPack’s survival at stake, the ruthless Tommy goes into defensive over-drive, trying to find ways to re-spin the guilty spotlight elsewhere — even if it means suggesting the Illinois victims had provoked their own killers. The accusation of bullying, which may or may not be true, is one of two major twists that steer script’s second half in unexpected directions.With dream sequences, flashbacks, rear video projections, news reports and so forth, “First Person Shooter” is busy to the brink of clutter. Though it has overarching moments, Loeb’s writing is sharp enough to pull off his complicated gameplan. Weakest link credibility-wise is that Kerry — who is, after all, the boss — lets Tommy manipulate him for so long into morally compromising positions. Played to smarmy perfection by Deverman, Iago-ish Tommy is perhaps too purely reprehensible for a play that otherwise probes the gray areas behind divisive issues.
Jon Tracy’s sharp production gets strong contributions from his actors, all of whom (except the excellent Marker) are multi-cast. Melpomene Katakalos’ set of multiple platforms backed by two vid-projection screens provides a clean stage for frequent location shifts. In the small Playhouse space, however, Tracy errs by having the thesps jump up and down, bang chairs, etc., for emphasis on the hollow risers — effects that come off as excess bombast.
Conversely, the show’s single most powerful scene is among its quietest: When mutually discomfited Daniel and Kerry find themselves interviewed side-by-side for a tabloid TV “news” program.