It's hard to imagine a more suitable play to stage in La Val's Subterranean Theater, home of the Impact Theatre, than Of Dice and Men, Cameron McNary's new play about Dungeons and Dragons devotees. The space is intimate, low-ceilinged, and, as the name suggests, underground -- in the basement of La Val's, a Berkeley pizza joint, to be precise. So when the play's narrator, John Francis (Seth Thygesen), says, "I live in my mother's basement. I've become the fucking stereotype of my hobby," all it takes are a few album covers, comic books, and action figures mounted on the theater walls (set by Martin Flynn, props by Tunuviel Luv) to make his frustration with life feel all too real. (The upstairs aroma of old pizza doesn't hurt, either.)
Yet, despite John Francis's awareness of D&D stereotypes, the play doesn't seek to transcend them. Most of the time, that's just fine. In the game, players invent characters based on their ideal selves, their childhood fantasies, or their guilty pleasures (a middle-aged mom's alter ego is a Scottish male dwarf with a fondness for dick jokes) to collaborate on quests and battles. This offers joy enough in the wild and unselfconscious visions of a group of misfit adults -- particularly when director Melissa Hillman uses numerous theatrical means to immerse us in their imaginary world: warrior costumes (by Miyuki Bierlein), outsized weapons, eerie red lights (by Anne Kendall), and thunderous sound effects underscored by a military march chorale (by Colin Trevor).
Less successful are the real characters and some of the real actors. Nerds are awkward by definition, but there's a difference between suggesting a character's social failings and failing to listen to one's own scene partner. Performances are tolerably campy in the first act, with John Francis as the quasi-dignified leader, Tara (Maria Giere Marquis) as the too-perfect "hot gamer chick" who's just waiting for him to ravish her, John Alex (Jai Sahai) as his foul-mouthed best friend, and Linda and Brandon (Linda-Ruth Cardozo and Stacz Sadowski), the married couple who don't exactly share the same level of interest in the game.
But when the first act ends and Jason (Jonathon Brooks) announces that he enlisted in the Army, the play starts to take itself way too seriously, and major writing problems appear: Jason gets less characterization than the other characters' avatars do, so it's difficult to care that he's putting his life in danger. The stereotypes grate. And John Francis' narration, hokey from the beginning, becomes self-congratulatory and too concerned with making everybody live happily ever after.
At the end of the show, when you walk up to La Val's, you're suddenly back in the world where D&D is egregiously uncool, which is a true shame: Whether you're a theater person, a D&D player, or some other kind of geek, Of Dice and Men ends up presenting a less interesting show than the game it's about.
Of Dice and Men continues through Oct. 1 at La Val's Subterranean Theater in Berkeley. Admission is $12-$17.