A great ensemble is wasted on cardboard characters in this unromantic comedy.
The Factory Theater’s teling a little story about Jack and Diane. Unfortunately for audiences, it’s a very little story, indeed—one filled with charming performances, some solid punchlines, and absolutely no interest in treating its female characters as though they’re actual human beings. Though, in the play’s defense, most of the male characters are pretty underdeveloped, too. They’re just not turned into villains or subject to erection jokes.
Mike Ooi’s Dating & Dragons, directed with brisk efficiency by Scott OKen, comes at a time when the classic role-playing game is experiencing something of a resurgence. While a few of Ooi’s punchlines will require knowledge of gaming—D&D and Magic the Gathering, to name just a few of the references trotted out—most do not. This is a comedy for nerds, sure, but not only for nerds. The focus is less on the dragons and more on the dating life of Jack (Nick Freed) and Diane (Rebecca Wolfe), the dream girl who walks into Jack’s video store one day.
The audience members aren’t the only witnesses to this romance. Jack’s friends (Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren and Savanna Rae) have plenty to say about Jack’s love life, and predictably, their advice varies wildly in quality. Zagoren, Faifer and Rae each give it their all, and while their characters may be little more than sketches, their commitment to the jokes and the play’s giddy pace provide much of what charm there is to be found. But while Rae is the MVP of that group, she’s also the one worst served by the playwright. That’s thanks, among other things, to the aforementioned arousal joke, which would be both unfunny and unnecessary even if she wasn’t both the play’s only acknowledged LGBT character and the only female character who’s not also the love interest.
Still, that’s nothing to what’s handed to Diane and Wolfe, a winning performer deserving of much better material. As stated above, few of the characters could be called developed—Jack comes closest, as the acknowledged stand-in for the playwright, and that’s due mostly to Freed’s thoughtful performance—but Wolfe get the most raw of the raw deals on offer. What little we learn of Diane’s life feels a bit like dramaturgical Mad Libs: Pick a career, a childhood heartbreak, maybe a band she likes, end of list. Instant love interest.
Still, that’s a common problem. The real kicker comes in the ways she’s seen by her prospective paramour. To say too much about the problematic nature of her role is to spoil the ending of the story, but suffice it to say that it’s a seemingly harmless variation on a familiar, frustrating theme. The play in fact tells us it’s completely harmless—keep your eyes peeled for the quick segment when the audience is told exactly how foolish being offended by things is, an odd sentiment in a summer marked by tragedy and unrest. Easy to call something harmless, but see a story like this for the umpteenth time, and that offense might not seem quite so off-base.
The Factory Theater. By Mike Ooi. Directed by Scott OKen. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.