PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES: Becca A. Lewis's Charlotte gets in touch with her inner dominatrix.
Private Fears in Public Places — Alan Ayckbourn's London-set tragicomedy from 2004 — is all about how difficult it is to know another person. Stewart, an aging real-estate agent, borrows a tape of a religious program from his conservative secretary, Charlotte, but once the show ends, the static transforms into home-brewed porn starring his co-worker. Ex-soldier Dan and his fiancée, Nicola, enlist Stewart's help in finding an apartment together, only to realize they can't stand each other. After a series of secret and unsuccessful blind dates, Stewart's live-in sister, Imogen, runs into Dan. Closeted homosexual bartender Ambrose oversees all of the above, ready with advice and a cup of cheer for the lingering lonelyhearts but unable to clean up the messes in his own life.
In the New England premiere production now up from Zeitgeist Stage (at the BCA's Plaza Black Box Theatre through March 6), David J. Miller's direction and scenic design emphasize the play's connectivity, as scenes unfold right on top of one another. A large central table unites disparate locations, standing in for Charlotte's desk at work and a multitude of kitchen tables. The thrust stage means that the audience sees the actors' backs as often as their faces, and that underlines what we don't know about one another. All six actors sink into their characters' personal shame and loneliness, but Becca A. Lewis's Charlotte sparkles the brightest with her bipolar balance between religious zeal and well-masked porn-star proclivities. You'll root for her deliciously deviant dominatrix side until you see its unhappy consequences.
Apollinaire Theatre Company is also contending with secrecy and lack of communication, in Jennifer Haley's Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (at Chelsea Theatre Works through March 14), a supernatural thriller about a violent multi-player video game that sweeps a suburban utopia and brainwashes the hapless players. When the kids cry for help, their parents ignore them, and some even encourage the gaming addiction — not a good idea, since the game eventually convinces kids that their parents are zombies who must be slaughtered in cold blood.
Sounds corny — and it is. Haley's script is chock full of camp, but in among the witty one-liners are some lessons for kids about quality control and a warning to parents to stop dangerous patterns in their children before it's too late. Indeed, it's the parents here who get the lion's share of the blame. Unfortunately, some of the Apollinaire actors (almost all of whom, given the abundance of characters, are double-cast) have trouble staying with the message. The younger actors embrace their teenage stereotypes, but the adults seem unwilling to play their characters as the negligent buffoons that Haley created. Brian Quint is the notable exception — he delights as an out-of-touch dad and disturbs as a rambling recluse with Teiresias-like warnings.
Aaron Mack's brilliant sound design and Julia Noulin-Merat's set more than make up for any acting missteps. Neighborhood 3 has the slick feel of a cinematic video game, with a sinister narrator voice, perfectly timed sound effects, and a set reminiscent of a fighting arena. A fence of blocks surrounds the stage, so the actors appear trapped; between scenes, they mimic gaming avatars, complete with stilted movements. As the play neared its climax the night I attended, audience members started glancing around and shifting in their seats, half-expecting zombies to slouch up the aisles. The nightmarish conclusion will leave you a bit twitchy on your way home in the dark — the midnight showing on March 6 would be perfect for students seeking a scare.