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Theater review: The Oregon Trail idles down familiar paths

The Oregon Trail
Photograph: Jeremy Daniel

At some point, we lowered the bar for Americana. Gen X and Y kids don't get misty over elm trees and the space race; we're more likely to respond to an Apple II's start-up tone. Bekah Brunstetter's sour, low-stakes comedy The Oregon Trail thus appeals to a demographic stripe that remembers the pioneer-themed, BASIC-programmed computer game of the title; there is even a laptop in the lobby so you can play till your character inevitably dies of dysentery. But beyond scratching that specific nostalgic itch, the play offers few rewards.

When we meet Jane (Liba Vaynberg), she's in seventh grade, booting up The Oregon Trail in her school's computer lab. She's a sulky adolescent, and we soon learn that she's incapable of growing out of the phase. We also see visions of Jane's ancestors, wagon-train types making their way through 19th-century territories. Jane's counterpart in olde times is played by Emily Louise Perkins as a grade-A narcissistic whiner. “Don't make me go on alone!” she cries, as a family member dies in horrible pain. Yeesh,you think. How come she can't get snake-bit?

The play makes strange use of the modern Jane's depression, which is presented as a mysterious sadness that keeps her from any kind of real action. Life isn't quite life for Jane; everything's still just a game. Even after she leaves the library for adulthood, the computer “voice” dictates her choices. “Do you want to continue on the trail?” a disembodied narrator asks after Jane wastes her time at college or loses a job or fails at a one-night stand. 

Jane's not really functioning, yet throughout the show's 90 minutes of self-destruction and indulgent passivity, neither she nor her doctor sister (the nicely wry Laura Ramadei) brings up therapy or medication. Whether Brunstetter is making a point about generational malaise or actual illness, she's spent too little time speculating on a cure. The play ends on a note of pseudo-uplift, in which Jane tells her sister that life is worth it because, “You're alive.” There's no other reason? The spirit bridles. At least in the game, whenever you reach a landmark, it asks, “Would you like to look around?” The play, it seems, has answered 'no.'—Helen Shaw

McGinn/Cazale Theatre (see Off-Off Broadway). By Bekah Brunstetter. Directed by Geordie Broadwater. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Feb 12. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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