For ten years, six toys that call themselves “misfits” gathered for weekly board game nights in Oberon’s dad’s garage, in a suburban-rural town, in a blue state for which voting for a third candidate in a general election probably did not matter. In the tension of the week after the 2016 presidential election, Dez’s microaggressions push the group over the edge, and now the other members must vote whether or not to expel him from the crew. When Dez threatens suicide, the gang must tread carefully and keep Dez in the garage. M.J. Halberstat’s new play, “Deal Me Out,” is an allegorical retelling of the 2016 election more representative of the oppressive mundanity of time than the problems associated with “following the rules.” It suffers from its insipid comedy and uneven characters as often as it is redeemed by the inevitable instability of the long-standing friend group.
The set is perfectly mimetic of the ostensible “white disenfranchisement” of twenty-somethings for whom Bob’s Discount Furniture is too classy. A workbench is piled with boxes of the type of games you’d find on sale at Walmart the day after Christmas — mostly belonging to Dez — and a few choice ones: Ticket to Ride, Pandemic Legacy (20 percent off for a very important reason). Paraphernalia litters the room: A Rainbow Mario Kart Blooper hat rides on an inexplicably lit-up plastic Santa; two mountain bikes are stashed ambitiously on the ceiling, never used. Notably, a film poster for Tim Curry’s “Clue” folds over where the sticky-tack has faltered and it is too high to reach anymore. The room is eternally in the process of being refinished. If sets were principled on Chekhov’s Gun, this would be a cannon. A cannon that is never fired.
The drama is suffused with the rickrolling mantra, “you know the rules, and so do I” — rules that the friends keep in a tabbed 10-cent Staples notebook bound in a Batman trapper-keeper circa 2006.
We all want to hate Matthew Brettschneider’s Dez, slick but cavelier — the type who rehearses his schtick in front of a bathroom mirror and makes suicide jokes just often enough for them not to be irreverent. Brettschneider’s performance bubbles with post-teenage insecurity, but not quite the pre-incel disenchantment that his friends have arraigned him for.
Standout performances include Dev Blair’s subtle, suffering Lucien, whom Dez makes a pass at after encouraging him to escape an abusive relationship and join a therapy group — a fact thrown out in the climax and promptly ignored. Also noteworthy is Micaleen Rodger’s spot-on, constantly misgendered Kay. Such microaggressions are what lead to Dez’s expulsion. M.J. Halberstat should have leaned into these microaggressions more in light of the 2016 election (one week before the play begins) rather than using them as low-hanging, plot-lubricating fodder.
The actors partition the stage, both in dialogue and blocking, making them feel more like strangers than friends. Fiancées Agatha and Cleo touch, then orbit around each other after Dez calls out the discussion of their wedding. They are isolated in their individuality, wrapped mummies in some mid-decade association of queer identity with stigmatization. The feminist lesbian, the nonbinary person, two bisexuals — all are more stand-ins for misfittitude than automatic social outcasts. Lucien — for whom there is little other character development — is gay, abused, and tokenized. The cast collectively crosses their arms and dances more contemporary than rondo about the fold-out chairs and Home Depot miscellanea. At times they seem more archetype than character, devastatingly reminiscent of high school tropes. Yet the tension between Dez and the others after he threatens (or hyperbolizes?) suicide is palpable. Once Cleo hides Dez’s keys in her bra we cannot tell whether the crew has taken Dez as prisoner or they have become more prisoner to him.
At his most vulnerable moment, Dez stands antipodal to Cleo in an otherwise empty room, their worldviews showing commonality only in their opposition. His monologue stabs. It extrapolates to the mundane aftermath where they are canvassing for the same candidate in 2020, maybe at the same rally. The small talk happens. The board game group has broken up. Oberon still drinks in his parents’ basement. Dez is alive and with other people. In the last five minutes, M.J. Halberstat shows us the real horror of “Deal Me Out,” not in being good allegory, but through the the slow dangerous burn of mundanity through time, its ability to create fault lines between people.
The friends gather awkwardly, pyrrhic victors whiplashed out of action too soon, and Lucien asks Cleo not when Dez left, but how Dez left. Then there is black. The audience applauds, tepidly.