Review: “Dating & Dragons” (The Factory Theater)

Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed, Joe Faifer, Josh Zagoren, Savanna Rae/Photo: Michael Courier.

Show: “Dating & Dragons”

Company: The Factory Theater

Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard)

Die Roll: 16

Games, whether you’re talking about Monopoly, Risk, Magic, or Dungeons & Dragons, are governed by rules. Players can make prescribed choices at specific junctures while playing. Despite the comfort such routine may bring, games are also governed by chance. More often than not, a player rolls a many-sided die to determine his or her fate. And they have no control over what which way the roll lands.

This is a truth that Jack (Nick Freed) struggles with in The Factory Theater’s “Dating & Dragons,” currently running at the company’s new Howard space. Jack is a dungeon master for his group of friends; he controls the high fantasy adventures and card games they play multiple times a week. Gus (Josh Zagoren) takes the rules and routines of each game most seriously, clearly finding real life a boring slog. Paige (Savanna Rae) enjoys the multitude of choices that come along after she rolls the die. But Jack’s best friend Sean (Joe Faifer) is happy to interrupt their gaming sessions to discuss the girl Jack has been flirting with at work. Her name is Diane (Rebecca Wolfe), and Jack’s evolving relationship with her sparks what little conflict exists in “Dating & Dragons.” Jack thinks he can see where the romance is headed, but sadly, people are not predicated by game dice.

Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.
Rebecca Wolfe and Nick Freed/Photo: Michael Courier.

Playwright Mike Ooi pays a lot of lip service to the idea of rules throughout his script. However, Jack’s dedication to consistent game play is not what gets in the way of his connection with Diane. So the many sequences in which Jack or various other characters explain the games they are playing — often named by generic terms as an in-joke for the characters and as a safety measure for Factory itself — waste valuable stage time that could be spent developing dramatic stakes for Jack and Diane. The audience does not need to know how to play the games these characters enjoy, unless those rules impact the real world they live in, and much to Gus’ pleasure, they really don’t. Some characters voice concern that Jack will be taken away from their meetings by his new-found love, but we never see the consequence of lost gaming time. Ooi’s enthusiasm for tabletop gaming and video games is baked into the quips the group trades in each playing scene. But there isn’t a shred of connection between Jack’s love life and his friendships or their recreational pursuits, so I’m hard-pressed to call “Dating & Dragons” a play, when there’s little story to involve myself in.

Diane is another conundrum in the script. Wolfe gives her a lot of charm, but we learn little about her wants and needs, given how solely we live in Jack’s world. The most we see in her is what Jack sees: that Diane is pretty, is willing to hang with his nerdy friends, and wants to sleep with him. Ooi brings up the fact that Diane has her own wants and needs a few times, but by the time we find out what she desires, she’s too much of a cypher to invest in Jack’s heartbreak. For a play that is attempting not judge nerdier activities, Ooi inadvertently creates a world where women have little say, and are around mostly to be saved by the hero — Jack, in this case.

Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.
Nick Freed and Mike Manship/Photo: Michael Courier.

Director Scott Oken keeps things lively by having separate actors act as avatars embodying the games the group plays. And while the actors are having a blast mimicking the self-serious tropes of “Game of Thrones,” as well as the halting mechanics of video game graphics, the theatrical device grows stale over time. Do we really need avatars showing the audience giant cards that Jack and his friends are throwing? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to watch the game and imagine the adventure in one’s head? A late attempt by an avatar to take on Jack’s role broke the formula, but I remain unsure what purpose this moment served in the story.

Kaitlyn Grissom’s set admirably captures Jack’s toy-filled apartment and workplace, though the transitions between the two eat up stage time that could be used by the avatars or the gamers themselves. Sarah Espinosa’s sound design, especially the pre-show, captures the feeling of a good mix tape, with some Nintendo soundtracks thrown in. While costume designer Gary Nocco doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, he makes do with clever nods to each game played, making for enjoyable visuals.

Chance is a part of love, as much as it’s a part of any game (whether or not the players realize it). While the creators of “Dating & Dragons” clearly love their games and all forms of gaming, injecting a bit more chance into their plot may have given this play a greater sense of risk, and helped me fall in love with the production.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A story about gamers is less story and more games.

DICE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth The Time”