Reading Dana Schwartz’s engaging new play @Playaz felt like peering into my two preteen sons’ possible near future. This tale of three gamer bros bonding and butting heads around a multiplayer Twitch channel, now in performances at Moving Arts’ new space in L.A.’s Atwater Village through Dec. 13, depicts not-so-young men whose lives, not to mention their most meaningful relationships and precarious self-esteem, are centered around their video game screen and its virtual worlds. As I spoke via Zoom to Schwartz, who I knew primarily as an actor for her work in one of the great theatre ensemble companies there ever was (Justin Tanner’s Cast Theatre gang), my boys were seated a few rooms over, headsets on, blasting their way through Minecraft or Destiny 2.
“So much of parenting seems to be finding things to do to keep them off screens,” I told Schwartz, and as the mother of two teenage boys, she knows what I’m talking about. But @Playaz is not a jeremiad against video game culture or a portrait of toxic incels; indeed, as a one-time Madden fanatic herself, Schwartz is sympathetic to a medium that has not only provided entertainment but proved especially crucial over nearly two years of COVID-19 lockdown. As I learned with my own boys and their friends, they were already quite used to online play, and during the pandemic, moreso. But as Alan, Charlie, and Joe—the leads of @Playaz—discover, there is more to life than kill counts and expansion packs.
“I definitely have no judgment about it,” said Schwartz of online gaming and e-sports. “I really do feel like it’s a way for people to connect.” And while @Playaz was originally written before the pandemic—it was a 2019 O’Neill finalist—Schwartz said she “kind of tweaked it to speak to what we had just come out of.”
And so Alan and Charlie, Gen-X partners in a popular Twitch gaming channel that verges on their full-time job, are now part of a live-in pod during the COVID lockdown. As they prep for a big e-sports tournament, the first such in-person gathering since lockdown began, they warily try out a millennial gamer, Joe, who may or may not join their team. Spats, jokes, vomit, and some awkward intergenerational tussling and equally awkward makeup hugs ensue.
The pandemic lockdown didn’t just heighten the drama of @Playaz, Schwartz noted; it also underscored some of the show’s more resonant themes. In a few striking scenes that diffuse some of the play’s male energy, Alan, who is a young widower, flirts with an offstage woman, Joy, with whom he’s long played games but who, for a variety of reasons, is queasy about meeting IRL.
“I’m moved by the number of ways that people have to connect now, and I’m also terrified of the number of ways that people have to connect now,” said Schwartz. “Growing up, we had our phones with our long phone cords. It was either that or go to somebody’s house, right? Or write a note. Now, you know, there are hundreds of ways you can find somebody, so when people aren’t finding you, that sense of isolation and loneliness is even more palpable.”
I had to ask Schwartz: Does she see this as a play about toxic masculinity?
“As a human who exists in the world, obviously I’m very aware of toxic masculinity,” she said with a wry smile. “But I think that these guys are sort of the antithesis of that. I hope that I’ve drawn characters who have deep, messy relationships and feelings, and that they ultimately connect in a way that’s positive.”
That said, as the mother of two boys—and a member of the rough-and-tumble Cast Theatre ensemble, which had its share of outsized dude-bro energy—Schwartz has known plenty of men up close, and she’s been taking notes.
“I do find that men communicate better if there’s another thing happening,” she said. “Whether it’s golf or poker, an activity is a helpful distraction for them to find ways to communicate. I think it’s easier for women—for some women, at least.” She said the play’s director, Darin Anthony, expressed it as “the ways that we distract ourselves so that we can show this level of vulnerability.”
While Schwartz may be sympathetic to the impulse to connect online, and did her share of virtual theatre (including a nine-episode Zoom series with Moving Arts), she said she is overjoyed to be back in a physical space with her collaborators.
“There were actors I had been working with for a year that I had never, like, physically stood next to.” At the play’s first table read, she said, “We were laughing about something filthy that I’m sure I said, and Darin and I caught eyes across the table, and we were both like, ‘Oh God, we’re in human contact!’ It’s just really nice.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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