Culture Undiscovered: “Playing Games” at the Phoenix Fringe Festival

Sometimes, it seems like I’m too critical for my own good. The world just presents me with so many problems to point out! I’ve come to accept that viewing the world through a critical lens will always be more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding as well — calling people out on their problematic views and depictions of the world is the first step in changing the way we see it. So, when I talk about the Phoenix Fringe Festival play “Playing Games,” I can’t ignore its more cringe-worthy aspects. That’s not to say it was all bad — there were a lot of real, hilarious moments in it that made it well worth seeing — but like anything, it wasn’t perfect.

But first, the good. “Playing Games” centers on Mel and Bryson, a young couple who likes to lure strangers into their home and play manipulative games with them. One day, they realize that their potential prey (named Jason) is perfect for Mel’s sister Liz, and antics ensue. The show’s highlights are the interactions between Liz and Jason; they’re dead-on about how off-the-charts awkward dating can be (or is, if you’re me).

"Playing Games" is showing at the Phoenix Center for the Arts through Sunday, March 11. Playbill courtesy of Brelby Theatre Company.

This isn’t the Zooey Deschanel “oh I’m so awkward because I sing at random but I’m also infuriatingly perfect” brand of awkward that you see on TV. Liz and Jason are “I just made a sexual joke and you didn’t get it” awkward, and their interactions more closely follow the trajectory of most Morrissey lyrics (look at me, please look at me, oh god why are you looking at me) than they do your typical romantic comedy. Watching them is like watching yourself on an especially awkward first date, except funnier and less painful. Again, this is the best part of the show.

What gave me trouble was the play’s depiction of Liz’s insane sister Mel, who ends up embodying a lot of really negative stereotypes about women that have no place in any progressive piece of entertainment. Mel is needy (she constantly whines for her husband’s attention), manipulative (she tricks her sister into talking to Jason), and selfish (after Liz begins dating Jason she tries to seduce him). Her character stretches the limits of believability on more than one occasion, and (if you’re me) will make you want to give someone a stern talking to.

That being said, people should still go see the play anyway — maybe even because of it.  Watch “Playing Games” and think about these things, because challenging ideas you don’t normally question can be fun! Go see “Playing Games” and disagree with me! Or, you can go see a number of other shows that Phoenix Fringe is putting on, many of which are running through Sunday, March 11. There are a ton to choose from, like “Confessions of a Cat Lady” at Modified Arts, “SWAN Dubstep” at the Studio, and “Cool Like That: A Tribute to Miles Davis” at Studio 1005. Phoenix Fringe brings exciting theatre to downtown Phoenix and then returns the proceeds directly to the artists, so its worth supporting — even when not all of the statements that its shows make are.

Email me at jlpruett@asu.edu.