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THEATER REVIEW

Stone Cold Dead Serious

The Strange Redemption of a Geek’s Dysfunctional Family

By Eric J. Plosky
ADVISORY BOARD

Stone Cold Dead Serious

American Repertory Theater

Through March 10

Written by Adam Rapp

Directed by Marcus Stern

With Matthew Stadelmann, Guy Boyd, Elizabeth Reaser, Deirdre O’Connell, Robert Runck

It’s hard to write a satirical play that’s also serious about its characters’ redemption, but Adam Rapp -- something of a rising star in the Boston theater scene -- gives it his best shot in Stone Cold Dead Serious, now in a limited engagement at the American Repertory Theatre near Harvard Square.

Many MIT geeks can probably identify with 16-year-old geek Wynne Ledbetter (Matthew Stadelmann), who thus needs little further description. Wynne’s a finalist in a national computer-game tournament, and off he heads to New York to try, as they say, to cop the lolly. He leaves behind three relatives so individually dysfunctional that, unlike the Bradys, they somehow don’t form a family. Dad (Guy Boyd) is hopped up on painkillers following an accident at work; he rambles incoherently, obsesses over QVC, and can’t always control his bowels. Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) dizzily tries to keep order between double waitress shifts. Shaylee (Elizabeth Reaser), Wynne’s sister, has wandered off to become a homeless drug addict.

Wynne’s eye is on the $1 million video-game championship solely to help his family -- he wants to pay off the mortgage, get Dad his operation, and send Shaylee to rehab. Here’s where the redemption theme picks up. But Wynne’s not alone in his altruism. Mom’s started thinking about religion, and Shaylee figures that offing herself can only make things better for everyone else. Nonetheless, off Wynne goes to New York, hitching a ride with a perv (Robert Runck) and picking up a girlfriend, Sharice, along the way (Reaser again, in a dual role).

The performances are strong all around. Boyd gets most of the best lines as the incontinent father; Stadelmann, though sometimes shrill, is energetic and engaging in a demanding role. O’Connell humanizes the entire affair, while Reaser -- though impressive in both of her roles -- is a standout as Shaylee. From the first act, when Shaylee is so far gone she propositions her own brother for drug money, to the last, Reaser provides the play’s emotional ballast.

As Sharice, Reaser doesn’t get to talk at all -- Rapp has made her a mute, one of several odd choices by the playwright. The script has Wynne fancying himself a “fierce and brutal weapon of death” in samurai style; he talks endlessly about martial-arts training and ritualistic suicide. This is because Rapp’s video-game championship actually consists of a to-the-death swordfight, another eyebrow-raiser. Whatever point Rapp meant to make with Wynne’s strange transformation from blue-haired geek to shaved-headed Ninja Turtle is lost; this whole part of the play falls flat. Too bad, as Wynne’s alternate persona could have been intriguing to explore in more depth.

Because Rapp eventually decides to take seriously the absurd samurai battling, it’s difficult to understand what ultimately goes on. The redemption theme does survive the last act, as Wynne, Shaylee, and their parents reach out to one another, but the play-train nearly comes off the rails in the process, especially during one awkward late scene when the Ledbetters watch Wynne’s swordplay on television.

The direction, by Marcus Stern, is as uncertain as the writing in some of the thin later parts, but overall, the play moves agreeably along. Stern handles Wynne’s departure from his family with a mixture of wryness and glee, making that scene particularly successful. Technically, as is to be expected at the ART, the play is first-rate, although some of the music cues jar slightly. The costuming is spot-on, and Wynne’s sudden change of appearance couldn’t be more shocking.

Despite his thematic confusion, Rapp displays a talent for snappy dialogue and peppy tÊte-a-tÊte. He gives his characters an amusing Middle America voice and a small-town perspective that constantly comes to the surface -- eating at the Sizzler every night is noted as one potential benefit of Wynne’s million-dollar prize. Some of the smaller traits of Rapp’s characters -- it turns out that Dad wears suits while fishing -- are somehow appropriate, and help to flesh these folks out a bit. Each character is well-developed, with the curious exception of Sharice, Wynne’s short-lived girlfriend, who seems almost an afterthought.

In the end, the Ledbetters come together: Mom fingers her rosary beads, Dad sings softly to Shaylee, and Shaylee can finally give Wynne a shoulder to rest on. But it’s too neat an ending for such an ambitious play - maybe Rapp, riding high after a string of successes, overreached himself. Still, it’s a compelling show, and undeniably well suited to the blue-haired MIT crowd. Just leave your samurai sword at home.