Griefers comedy opens at Dad's Garage

Two men in their early 30s who take more satisfaction from video games than their real lives

Griefers, the world premiere comedy at Dad's Garage Theatre's Top Shelf space, follows two men in their early 30s who take more satisfaction from video games than their real lives. They particularly enjoy blasting bad guys in "first-person shooters," which the glossary in the play's program defines as "A very immersive style of gameplay that makes you feel as though you are inside the game."

Immersiveness turns out to be one of the most effective weapons in Griefers' arsenal, as writer/directors Christian Danley and Randy Havens show more insights into online behaviors than most other pop dramatizations in our instant-messaging, blogtastic virtual culture. For instance, the film Funny People from Judd Apatow (whom Griefers gently mocks) includes a scene at the MySpace corporate party and plenty of trash-talk at Facebook's expense. But the film pays lip service to the popularity of social media without really exploring the psychology behind it. Films and many plays view online life over the shoulder of the user, while Griefers, however imperfect, really plugs the audience in.

Danley and Havens play old friends Barry and Keith, who spend most of their spare time together shooting zombies and other antagonists. "Together," however, is a loaded concept, given that they physically remain at their separate homes: Their avatars hang out and shoot the breeze in virtual space, like pals chatting at the pool table of the neighborhood bar. Griefers cleverly gives the actors toy guns and places them before a projected backdrop of, say, "Jungle Murder," and features amusing "action scenes" of Barry and Keith getting caught up while the undead shamble toward them.

Laid-back Barry and his almost insufferably cheerful wife (Alison Hastings, who plays all the female roles) are only weeks from having their first baby, but abrasive Keith remains single and has difficulty sustaining relationships. On a first date, he tries to explain the appeal of games by saying, "It makes the 9 to 5 a little better knowing I can go home and shoot toddlers in the face." However off-putting the remark may be, he's referring to the fact that most of his fellow gamers are still in high school, or even younger. Without ridiculing the appeal of video games as pastimes, Griefers finds humor in such observations as, "Why does every 12 year-old on Xbox have a Michigan accent?"

Barry and Keith's enjoyment of communications technology approaches addiction. In one scene, Barry's wife wants some cuddly quality time, but he starts texting Keith literally behind her back. Barry emerges as an easily distracted but well-adjusted guy who appreciates his adult responsibilities, but Keith takes out his frustrations with romance and the workplace on strangers. It seems like no coincidence that the more social media Keith uses, the more antisocial he becomes in real life.

Keith becomes more and more like the real world version of an online "griefer," a type of gamer who'd rather irritate and harass the other competitors than try to win the game. Griefers touches on the phenomenon of anonymous online cruelty, which can range from faceless flamers who heap abuse in chat room comments to deceivers who construct elaborate false identities (probably the most popular theme in plays that explore the dark side of cyberspace). He also begins spending more online time with an enigmatic player (Matt Stanton) who hacks into games and exploits programming glitches, crossing a line of honorable behavior. It's as though the Internet cultivates personality types that gratuitously hurt others as a substitute for more positive human connections.

Havens has a gift for playing in-your-face, insulting characters at Dad's Garage, but also conveys Keith's uphill battle at self-improvement by the play's end. Stanton and Jeffrey Zwartjes play some of their supporting roles too cartoonishly, such as Zwartjes' dungeon-master type who speaks with that nerdy enunciation reminiscent of "The Simpsons'" comic book guy. The dialogue and situations have enough inherent humor to make caricature unnecessary.

At barely 70 minutes, Griefers proves to be a fun evening, and could be an early draft of a good play with a little more development. Its funny dialogue, insider's perspective and metaphorical value suggest that the play could have a life beyond the Atlanta theater scene. A few plot points, including a tragedy in Keith's family, practically plead to be fleshed out further and add dimensions to the roles. If Danley and Havens want Griefers to meet its potential, they should consider dispensing with the brief scenes of improvised dialogue. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves (Danley's a new dad, for instance), they extemporize droll little exchanges that sound realistic, but also involve a perceptible shift in acting style that undermines the play overall.

While Griefers leaves some of its ideas underused, it hits some intriguing targets in scattershot fashion. In one scene, a midgame discussion of atheism ends when Internet problems cause the virtual world to go black, like a literal deus ex machina. On a date, Keith finds himself attracted to an acid-tongued young woman who he realizes is a different kind of real-life griefer. Plenty of profane but quotable quips knit the action together, like Keith's observation that downtown Decatur "has a coffee shop for every douchebag." With a little more work, Griefers could set a high score for original, locally written plays about social trends. O RLY? Yes, really.

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