Lauren Saunders as Mia reads the latest posted message by Keysha… (Red Branch Theatre Company,…)
Original scripts by local writers receive world premiere productions in the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Most of the participating theaters have been in Baltimore and nearby suburbs during the festival's 30-year history, but this year, Columbia is getting in on the act via the Red Branch Theatre Company's production of Colin Riley's "Web of Deceit."
Riley's absurdist comedy tackles a highly topical theme, namely, how the Internet is affecting our personal relationships. But topicality isn't enough to make the play seem like more than an amusing oddity.
Thank goodness the two lead performances are so enjoyable that it's relatively easy to watch the slight and static play in which they appear.
Keysha and Mia are two young women whose similar age and wardrobe initially might prompt you to assume that they're friends who really get along. Both wear outfits with black-and-white-striped patterns that make them seem like they've come out of a mime school; likewise, the heavy white makeup on their faces obviously has clownish associations.
Although the play says virtually nothing about their backgrounds or occupations, the costumes and makeup do link them as surely as any vaudeville duo. Mia in particular is given to pantomiming her feelings, which further reinforces the sense of them as a comic pair embarking on an existential exploration of their friendship.
It doesn't take long to realize that they're actually quite different. Keysha remains seated before her computer keyboard, and all of her remarks seem influenced by the social media that define her life. In contrast, Mia mostly lounges on the bed or wanders over to the window that offers at least a glimpse of the outside world. Mia makes fun of Keysha's social-media fixation, and when Mia writes a letter in longhand it seems as if she's doing so just to aggravate Keysha.
The playful banter between them isn't all fun and games, because the playwright makes valid points about how modern technology complicates relationships that once relied more on face-to-face meetings than on interfacing via an illuminated screen. In one disturbingly funny scene, Mia wants to have a real conversation with Keysha, who is standing a few feet away; Keysha finds this social custom uncomfortably old-fashioned and instead, tries to send a text to Mia.
As Keysha, Rebecca Ballinger is humorously assertive and borderline-arrogant when it comes to preaching the virtues of an Internet-based life. As Mia, Lauren Saunders brings out her character's little girl-evocative innocence and sincerity.
The actors have a nice sense of comic timing as they trade lines. Their gestures are so extroverted that they verge on resembling live-action cartoons, but that's the intended effect in this play. Director Jennifer Spieler is true to the script in having them play so broadly; and this production also follows through with a schematic domestic set design by Justin Johnson that seems ideal for a comic strip story.
Unfortunately, this play is weaker than the cast and production crew who are in its service. The playwright's Web-related jokes often hit their social-media targets, but the play itself moves further in cyberspace than it does in the performance space.
The near-claustrophobic tone admittedly is integral to the play's thematic concerns. Keysha is locked into her computer screen, and the closest she comes to direct interaction with the outside world is to place online food orders that are delivered to their door. Mia talks about going outside, but she rarely does more than look out the window or venture a few feet outside the door.
You're trapped in this apartment with them. "Web of Deceit" is an existential situation, not a story. This near-plotless play does not even take us on a journey deeper into their relationship. Instead, the play merely works variations on the same few comic situations.
Even the introduction of a third character, a mysterious visitor named Mark (Dustin C.T. Morris), doesn't really take the play in a meaningful direction. Mark is just silly and enigmatic. He is good for a few laughs but is indicative of the play's facile surrealist mood.
Although this intermissionless 75-minute play does have the advantage of brevity, it still threatens to wear out its welcome. What makes it worth seeing are the two main actors, who merit exclamatory tweets.
"Web of Deceit" runs through July 16 at Red Branch Theatre Company, at 9130 Red Branch Road, in Columbia. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Call 410-997-9352, or go to http://www.redbranchtheatre.com.