It's curious that Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom isn't playing through Halloween. The script is perfect for the season, a horror movie for the stage with all the trimmings—worrisome adolescents, their distant and self-involved parents, ambiguous but malevolent forces, the creepy ghosts of dead children, and a violent fantasy that breaks into flesh-and-blood (especially blood) reality. The script even trots out a variation on that venerable horror cliché: The call... is coming... from inside... THE HOUSE!
The adolescents of an anonymous, white-bread suburb are hooked on a massive multiplayer video game. They don't eat much, don't sleep much, and engage in as little human interaction as they can. Even the old recreational standbys of sex and drugs fail to move them. In the first scene, a high-school girl named Makaela (one of the neighborhood's few nonplayers) stands in a kitchen with her classmate Trevor, flirting unsuccessfully. "Do you want a Vicodin?" she asks. "Won't that slow my reflexes?" he frets. So she pulls out her ace—her brother's Xbox and the coveted game, which maps out the players' neighborhood and populates it with murderous zombies who resemble the neighborhood's grown-ups. "I'm dying to play Neighborhood 3," Trevor pants.
"Ha! That sounds like something out of a horror movie," Makaela says. "Like you're about to play this video game, and you think it's just a game but actually it's real—but these teenagers don't know it, but the audience knows it, and this one kid's like, 'I'm dying to play,' and it's like ooooo foreshadowing!"
That's not just foreshadowing. That's the play, in one long sentence.
Playwright Jennifer Haley and director Makaela Pollock both earned graduate degrees from Brown University's prestigious theater program. Haley studied with acclaimed scriptwriters—Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) and Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary)—before moving to Los Angeles. Watching Neighborhood 3, her playwright's progress makes perfect sense. You can almost see Haley peering around L.A., thinking to herself: "Give the people what they want. If the Hollywood horror-industrial complex can do it, why can't I?" So she did. Haley appropriated a few horror-movie conventions and wove them into a fun, slight blockbuster with a suburban-gothic setting (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street), a children's revolt (Children of the Corn), a few dashes of winking metahorror (Scream), and voilà.
Neighborhood 3 meets its ambitions but never exceeds them. The characters are stock. The relationships are mechanical. The symbolism is so transparent it barely qualifies as symbolism. While butchering zombies on his computer screen, one teen player says to another, "Every night on his fifth cocktail, my dad turns into a zombie and basically tells me what a loser I am." In another scene, one of the neighborhood adults ominously says to another, "We moved here to raise children. And then I realized this neighborhood, in trying so hard to deny fear, actually magnifies it."
You don't say.
Haley adroitly replicates the Hollywood-horror formula and adds nothing new—but a local improv company called Blood Squad does her one better. At Blood Squad shows, somebody shouts out a made-up horror-movie title and the performers spend the next hour acting it out. The conceit is dead simple, but it works. Blood Squad not only deploys the clichés but satirizes them in the process, giving its horror theater an extra level of depth. That is the only surprise of Neighborhood 3—that a well-credentialed playwright with a fancy degree loses in the depth department to an improv troupe.
Regardless, the four actors give competently mercurial performances, dividing their neighborhood characters by age and gender: Josh Aaseng plays the boys, Patrick Allcorn plays the men, Natalie Breitmeyer plays the girls, and Kelly Hyde plays the women. (Curiously, none of the actors are members of Washington Ensemble Theatre—nor are the director, playwright, and stage managers. Only the set, lighting, and sound designers are ensemble members.) Aaseng and Hyde are especially gutsy and shape-shifty in their roles, giving subtle shadings to the awkward boys and fretting/drunken mothers who populate the neighborhood.
In the play's final scene, a single mother (Hyde) comes upstairs to ask her petulant, pouting son (Aaseng) to investigate a suspicious noise outside. The son, who is trying to crack the game's "final house," quietly seethes at the intrusion. They are the archetype of dysfunctional mother/son relationships, locked in a stalemate where she talks and talks and he grinds his ungrateful teeth. Even though we have seen this moment coming for the past 55 minutes, Hyde and Aaseng imbue the scene with genuine tragedy and a harrowing feeling of doom.