In Madhuri Shekar’s delightful romantic comedy “In Love and Warcraft,” the character Evie shields herself from romance and real life by existing in an alternate universe of online games.
The “World of Warcraft” ace also shows considerable panache deploying love letters for the verbally challenged. It’s a tribute to the depth of her passion that her words strike the hearts of their targets with pinpoint accuracy.
The winner of the 2014 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, this world premiere brings to the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage a canny blend of Jane Austen and “Cyrano de Bergerac” — as viewed through a geeky collegiate lens. An emotionally cloistered games nerd who visibly quivers in the presence of hot guys, Evie (Lily Balsen) is much better at whispering words into the ears of tongue-tied lovers than cultivating her own romance.
Hers is such an extreme case that she’s never met her own boyfriend, Ryan (Patrick Halley), a “World of Warcraft” addict who rarely leaves the comfort of his recliner or his bag of Cheetos. Still, sex is everywhere Evie looks, thanks to her nymphomaniac roommate Kitty (Alexandra Ficken) and the carousel of eccentrics who demand Evie’s epistolary wizardry.
The balance tilts when Evie encounters the handsome Raul (Evan Cleaver), who waits patiently while she investigates her fear of physicality. While comedies of this ilk traditionally operate on farcical, love-is-blind conceits and 11th-hour revelations, Shekar’s hero and heroine find each other early on, an authorial decision that labors the plot.
But while the lovers nurse their dysfunction, Shekar stirs up great comedic shenanigans and one wholly original theatrical interlude. And for the most part, director Laura Kepley coaxes wonderful performances from the ensemble.
Halley is hilarious as a Belushi-like loser. Ficken is wonderful as the insatiable Kitty. And Bobby Labartino and Diany Rodriguez excel in a variety of roles. Labartino gets to play an oversharing gay hairdresser and a derriere-obsessed homeboy. Rodriguez shows her versatility playing the sassy, the trashy and the tearful with equal aplomb.
As for the leads, Balsen’s sexually buttoned-up Evie manages to make extreme anxiety somehow lovable. I’m not sure we ever quite understand the origins of her timidity, nor Raul’s almost angelic sense of devotion. As played by Cleaver, Raul is hardly a Lothario. His Raul benefits from the irony of his predicament and some well-timed laugh lines, but a steamier Raul might have served the tale better.
On the design side, Andrew Boyce imagines an all-purpose arched backdrop of orange brick and purple trim. Liz Lee makes it all fairly drip with liquid light. And Lex Liang delivers a wardrobe of material that’s appropriate to the story — plus some jawdroppingly awesome “World of Warcraft” gear.
Over 10 years, the Alliance’s playwriting competition has identified the literary stars of the next generation. Shekar is no exception. “In Love and Warcraft” is a fresh look at the strange social behaviors spawned by Internet culture, where love and loneliness spar like the masters and the monsters of the universe.