- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

In the anonymity of cyberspace, you can be yourself - or anybody else. Carlos Murillo’s “Dark Play or Stories for Boys” delves into the cultivation and exploitation of online fantasy personalities with chilling and sometimes comic results. Teenage loner Nick (James Flanagan) is a cybermanipulator of self-professed “comic book superhero dexterity.”

Bored with creating dream girls to tease frustrated boys on AOL, Nick concocts the ultimate method of testing the “gullibility threshold” of his fellow man. His subject is schoolmate Adam (Brandon McCoy), a nice, gullible kid who states in his Web profile, “I want to fall in love.”

Bingo! Nick has his prey. He invents Rachel (Casie Platt, excellent as both a blip on a computer screen and a real live girlfriend), a cross between Hilary Duff, Avril Lavigne and Natalie Portman. Adam falls hard for this smart - but not too smart - pretty and fetchingly messed-up girl. While Nick is in command as an online Scheherazade, he also finds himself drawn further and further into this intimate setup, furiously devising other personas such as Rachel’s cool younger brother and her abusive stepfather to flesh out the fantasy.

When Adam insists on a face-to-face, Nick knows he can’t produce Rachel. But he can pose as the younger brother, and this foray into reality sends his ruse into dangerous territory. Some of the online characters may be fake, but the emotions and level of betrayal are all too real.

Deeper than a condemnation of the power of the Internet, “Dark Play” is at heart a warped romance that reveals the depths to which people are willing to descend to be loved. Adam may be a chump, but he’s not a generic victim. As played with clear-cut unaffectedness by Mr. McCoy, there’s tangible power in Adam’s straightforward expressions of desire and the degradations he submits to in proving his love.

Nick’s motivations are thornier. He’s someone who totally lives in his head and is a puppet master without peer, but finds his sexual confusions and wants cannot be controlled by the click of a mouse. It would be easy to hate Nick, but Mr. Flanagan’s bravura performance brings out all the self-loathing, terrible loneliness and trickster nature of the character.

“Dark Play” gets under your skin, and director Michael Dove creates an atmosphere of unrelenting intensity. Cliff Williams III adeptly portrays everything from giggly Asian girls looking for “fun times” and “experience” to chat-room bullies, and Charlotte Akin displays comedic chops as a histrionic drama teacher and a no-nonsense investigator who insists on proper grammar and spelling during online exchanges.

“Dark Play” uncovers our persistent need to be fooled, to believe that for once “too good to be true” will turn out right.

* * * 1/2

WHAT: “Dark Play or Stories for Boys” by Carlos Murillo

WHERE: Forum Theatre at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 2.

TICKETS: $15 to $20

PHONE: 202/489-1701

WEB SITE: www.forumtheatredc.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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