At the beginning of “Welcome to the White Room,” we are introduced to three of the play’s four characters: Ms. White (Jessica Ruth Baker), Jennings (Kevin Griffin Moreno), and Mr. Paine (Eric Park). They have apparently been selected as the elite, the best of the best—at something.
One by one, they introduce themselves with Mamet-style rapid-fire dialogue and demonstrate their bona fides with gadgets they have created. Ms. White’s sends Mr. Paine into a waking dreamlike state in which he is alternately elated and terrified, screaming “Grab the purple rope!” We gather that the trio has come (been brought?) to the titular white room to solve a riddle, or face a challenge of some sort, but it’s not clear what the challenge is.
As with a lot of avant-garde theater, it’s not easy to get your footing here, but playwright Trish Harnetiaux and director Chris Cotterman keep things moving at such a steady pace, with a stream of clever lines and physical comedy, that the audience never really feels lost. We’re in this together, it seems, and there’s more than enough to chew on before some secrets are revealed in the final moments.
This is the play’s debut production, though there was a reading in New York in 2013, featuring “Veep’s” Anna Chlumsky. Acme Corporation produced Harnetiaux’s last play, “If You Can Get to Buffalo: An Exploration of ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ by Julian Dibbell,” marking her as a firmly Baltimore-connected playwright.
Even though Harnetiaux wrote the play more than a year ago, it discusses the nature of games and gaming culture in a sexualized way that feels very au courant in the wake of Gamergate. Modern gaming, as tied as it often is to technology and the future, also reflects core elements of human nature: our imagination, our competitiveness, our quest for knowledge, and our desire for an escape.
As the trio goes along trying to figure out the problem it’s tasked with solving, aided by clues spit out by a mysterious chute, they dwell on their unique powers. Ms. White is the only one with the power to read the clues, and the collective’s first major success is in dealing with Mr. Paine’s desperate desire to kiss her. It is only when they realize that the power of Paine’s desire is the desire itself and not its fulfillment do they pass the test and move on to the next level.
As the team progresses further down the rabbit hole of its unknown mission, it is presented with “the last deck of cards in the world.” The answer here seems to be to eat the quaint cards—it’s never explicitly stated, but it’s fairly clear the action takes place some time in the future—which the cast does eagerly. It’s a genuinely surprising Lewis Carroll-worthy moment when Jennings takes his first bite of a prop card, which is apparently made of something edible. Before long the world is rid of playing cards.
The cast is perfectly game in this fast-moving one act, which lasts just over an hour. Baker is especially adept at portraying the cool, in-control Ms. White. Moreno has mastered the smarmy know-it-all, and mostly keeps his unexplained British accent intact throughout. Park, who plays the more earnest, everyman Mr. Paine, proves to be most adept at the physical comedy, as he is sporadically afflicted with the aftershocks of Ms. White’s dream-inducing device, and occasionally loses control of parts of his body.
We never really get a sense of what the rules of the game within the play are, and yet we find ourselves looking to solve it, and rooting for the characters to “win,” whatever that means. We’re trying to make sense of the illogical, the absurd, like we often do in our dreams—and maybe in our lives—where the rules are constantly changing and it’s impossible to know where we really stand.
In the end, we finally meet the fourth character, Patrick (Justin Lawson Isett), and his identity comes as something of a reveal, so we won’t spoil it. But his injection into the action drives home the connection between the play and our own daily struggles to make sense of our world, whether there really is any logic to recognize or not.