Theater Review - Love and Warcraft earns bonus points with online scenes

Alliance Theatre's award-winning comedy goes for laughs at the expense of insight

In Love and Warcraft, a world premiere comedy on the Alliance Hertz Stage, begins with what could be called questus interruptus. Two members of a raiding party in the online game World of Warcraft abandon their teammates and close their computers to hook up. Ryan (Patrick Halley), the most stereotypically nerdy player, voices his disbelief: "Why would they be having sex when we're on the verge of a legendary, server-first boss kill?"

That's In Love and Warcraft in a nutshell, as playwright Madhuri Shekar contrasts the simple pleasures of computer gaming with the complexities of romance in the real world. The 10th and latest winner of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, In Love and Warcraft frequently falters, but pulls out a game-saving move at the eleventh hour.

Lily Balsen portrays Evie, who attends a Southern California college but spends most of her spare time as an avatar in the Warcraft realm. Her fellow "guild member" Ryan serves as a long-distance sort-of boyfriend, as Evie prefers a platonic relationship. Ironically, she makes extra money by helping her classmates with their love lives by writing romantic letters, Facebook posts, and more, sort of like a Cyrano de Bergerac of social networks.

She begins to change her attitude toward relationships when she helps amiable hunk Raul (Evan Cleaver), who decides he'd rather date Evie than stay with his current girlfriend. Despite her attraction to Raul, Evie reveals a deep discomfort with physical intimacy and suggests a sex-free relationship. Raul agrees — if she'll stay out of the online magic kingdom.

In an early scene, Evie and Ryan have comically orgiastic responses to a big Warcraft victory, as the show hits the idea of the game as a sex substitute really hard. In fact, the production, directed by Laura Kepley, hits nearly all of its themes and jokes as hard as possible, like a troll swinging one of those spiked ball-and-chain things. Perhaps the Alliance Theatre is concerned, understandably so, that the traditionally older theater-going audience will have little frame of reference for massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Warcraft.

The humor proves particularly overheated, especially in the scenes with Evie's sexually voracious roommate Kitty. (Yes, "Kitty.") In the role, Alexandra Ficken plays nearly every moment as if she's in an over-the-top sex farce, rolling her eyes disdainfully and exaggerating practically every syllable in her sentences. The broad performance emphasizes that Evie and Kitty have one of those unconvincing rom-com friendships that present two characters as BFFs even though they apparently have nothing in common, including mutual respect.

Balsen gives a low-key, likable performance throughout the show, despite the character's idiosyncrasies. But while Shekar doesn't want to reduce Evie's issues with sexuality to past trauma or religious conviction, the playwright otherwise leaves them underexplored. When Evie has a change of heart (as it were), the plot turn is almost insultingly perfunctory.

In Love and Warcraft's conflicts come to a head with an extended sequence in the Warcraft realm, which proves unexpectedly magical. The actors play their characters' avatars, with elaborate costumes and props. Warcraft finally conveys the excitement and camaraderie of gameplay, something the script had neglected in favor of clichés about losers in their parents' basements. The irony of In Love and Warcraft is that the play never feels more alive than when it departs from real life.

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