Don’t Feed the Troll: “Deal Me Out”

Photo by Stratton McCrady; Rachel Belleman, Matthew Bretschneider, Hannah Beebe, Dev Blair, Caleb Cedrone

Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Written by MJ Halberstadt
Directed by Shana Gozansky
Dramaturgy by Ally Sass

February 13 to March 1, 2020
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215
BPT on Facebook
Critique by Kitty Drexel

Boston, MA — We all know that one toxic person who refuses to go away: they show up everywhere, you grew up together, they were hired when the company first started, etc. No one in your circle wants to get singled out by kicking them to the curb. Instead, everyone brines in their own contempt because confronting Toxic Tilly might upset the barely tolerable status quo. Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s Deal Me Out directly addresses the harm they do.

Deal Me Out is about a board gaming circle that bites the bullet and kicks out their parasitic, non-friend Dez. Dez (Matthew Bretschneider) cares more about winning than he does about the feelings of others. Like any textbook narcissist, he is irresponsible for his actions and refuses even the most basic of emotional work. He’s a terrible loser, a worse winner, and is right even when he’s blatantly wrong. Nothing is ever his fault. He is exhausting.

Gaming buds and social outcasts Oberon (Caleb Cedrone), Agatha (Rachel Belleman), Cleo (Hannah Beebe), Kay (Micaleen Rodgers), and Lucien (Dev Blair) join forces to oust Dez from their social circle, once and for all. That is, they try to until Dez reminds them that their gaming group has strict rules for expulsion. It wouldn’t be a proper gaming group if they weren’t sticklers for the rules. Their social engagement levels go from basic to advanced as the friends attempt to remove their antagonist while retaining their integrity.

Deal Me Out is not a literal translation of a board game onto the stage. It is less Qui Nguyen and more Josh Harmon. It captures the daily vexations caused by living in direct contact with selfish n00bs like Bernie bros or incels while using gaming as a metaphor for both friendship and the noxious dumpster fire that is American politics. Our hapless heroes navigate written and unwritten social and board game rules to rid themselves of Dez. Dez, the human embodiment of a pubic louse, doesn’t want to leave. Our heroes use their own club regulations to exterminate his presence. Dez is as tricky to unseat as a Republican house representative in Trump country.

Rachel Belleman, Dev Blair, Caleb Cedrone, Hannah Beebe, Micaleen Rodgers; Photo by Stratton McCrady.

The metaphor for politics is effective until Halberstadt inserts American politics directly into the dialogue. Until then, Halberstadt’s writing is witty; his characters discuss identity politics like actual human beings living those politics. He shows us the gaming metaphor in his character interactions with recognizable names such as Dominion, Ticket to Ride, and even Bananagrams. The rule of three is invoked often enough that we pick up on his message.

Halberstadt enters mansplaining territory when he directly compares American politics to a board game through overt explanations. He doesn’t need to. We are clever enough to understand the symbolism without the assist. It’s a relatively small detail but it was enough to pull me out of this world inside a garage that I was engrossed in.

Deal Me Out has an excellent ensemble dynamic. I sincerely believe that these actors care about each other. They care about the work. They are palpably vulnerable during the play’s arguments. Knowing that they are in the moment with their audience makes it easy to get lost in the world of the play/

They support each other with their energy and their consistent characterizations. These characters are realistic. We want the best for them. We’re sad when they suffer.

If the characters are a gang of misfit queers, then Dez is their dominatrix/ringleader. I wanted to hate Dez so much. (He dresses like a serial killer.) Bretschneider’s work prevented me. Dez lacks empathy but Bretschneider’s sympathy for Dez reaches us through his character work. Dez’s monologues about algorithms manipulate us into believing that he’s misunderstood. Maybe, just maybe, Dez is capable of redemption… He isn’t but Bretschneider makes us consider it.

The scenic light change from spots to flood in the first quarter of the play produced an audible reaction of pain from the audience. The sudden onset of florescent light hurt. Future audiences will thank designer Qian Chengyuan for a more gradual, less abrupt shift.

Deal Me Out was 90-minutes of well-paced, realistic character play within a relatable environment. It’s boardgame community cosplay and a treatise on troll expulsion. Gamers and gaming allies will appreciate this production for its humor and set design easter eggs. Hopefully, real-life Dezes will recognize themselves on stage and self-correct. Or, the right person will recognize their own Dez and do us all a solid by letting them know that Dezes ruin communities.

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