Playwright: Carlos Murillo. At: Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 312-226-9633; www.collaboraction.org; $15-$25. Runs through: Feb. 26
Nick, the central figure and narrator, explains that "dark play" is a game in which some participants don't know they are players and, therefore, don't know the rules and may be manipulated easily. Nick knows; at 14 he's a master of Internet false identity, and a whiz kid with superior verbal skills (often a signature of author Carlos Murillo's characters). To alleviate boredom and, more importantly, to confirm his self-proclaimed superiority, Nick engages Adam in an increasingly elaborate sextingAdam being 16, naïve and looking for the girl of his dreams. Nick's uber-mensch attitude comes from the Leopold and Loeb "thrill killing" playbook, with nearly as deadly results, and with a touch of Edward Albee's Zoo Story included.
In this extremely taut 90-minute drama, Murillo ratchets up the stakes repeatedly, stretching probability and credibilitywhich is precisely his point, at least in part: the limits of gullibility. He crosses sexual lines, too. Neither adolescent is, apparently, gay, but Nick is willing to go down (literally) that path in order to extend his control over Adam. The fact that actors Clancy McCartney (Nick) and Aaron Kirby (Adam) are comely young men with adolescent looks will give this secondary aspect additional appeal for some readers.
It's far more important that they are dynamic actors, especially McCartney, who carries most of the show on his slim shoulders. As directed by Anthony Moseley, McCartney makes Nick truly scary, an intensely focused boy with angelic looks and a twisted interior life, equal parts neediness and aggression. Kirby is his admirable foil in the less flamboyant role of the normal, nice kid who ignores his instinct that he's being played. When you're 16, horny and an object of sexual desire, it's hard to say no. Hey, it's hard to say no if you're 60!
As a script and as a production, dark play is easy to admire but difficult to like because the work has little compassion, which also is a Murillo hallmark. He prefers to engage audiences via ideas rather than via emotion or sentiment. The play offers little justification for Nick's behavior other than Nick's belief that his mother is sluttish and his passing references to being mocked and bullied, but we have no evidence, only Nick's dubious word. Adam is the boy for whom we care, but he disappears the nanosecond he's fulfilled his plot function. Nick probably has destroyed Adam's life, but we never know.
Moseley gives this thorny but mesmerizing work a bare-bones production in a simple black-box space in which Michael Reed's lighting design is the most important physical feature, other than the actors' movements. It's enough. The forbidden fruit of adolescent evil is alluring.