An awkward loser learns his lesson the hard way in this world premiere by Hunt Holman, running through this weekend at Portland Playhouse. Doug (Patrick Oury) returns to the miserable rural Washington town of his youth after a failed attempt to make it as a "professional role-playing game facilitator" in Seattle. He finds his mother, Sondra (K.B. Mercer), has rented out his apartment to a middle-aged alcoholic (Ben Plont) and his young companion, Willow Jade (Jazzi Mason), who may be fugitives from justice. Doug settles in for a game of Dungeons and Dragons with his high-school pals Lance (JJ Johnston), a hopeless slacker, and Steve (Matthew Dieckman), a real-estate agent. Everything goes fine until the cops and orcs show up.

Willow Jade is Portland Playhouse's first world premiere (and the first show Holman, a modestly successful playwright in New York and Seattle, has had produced in his hometown), and it fits well with the company's strengths. What seems at first to be a straightforward social satire rapidly becomes something far stranger, and director Lorraine Bahr draws upon the weirdo energy that made last season's bobrauschenbergamerica so delightful. It takes a special sort of company to include a program credit for orc design.

Opening night was a bit rough, but this is a show that will improve rapidly. The cast is mostly excellent, newcomer Johnston (nailing a post-grunge Wayne Campbell) and the always reliable Plont especially so. Plont is usually cast for his extraordinary comic timing, but here he gets to pair his knack for the absurd with some real despair. His hilarious second-act drinking binge is the show's most moving scene.

Holman writes like a prizefighter, following up easy gags with weird left hooks. "Pit bulls are very tame. As long as they're not around any other dogs or small children, they're not vicious at all," Sondra's sleazebag boyfriend (Jim Davis) explains. "Grip and Fang especially, since I don't fight them that much." This is a recipe for hilarity you don't want to miss. Portland Playhouse may extend the show if it sells well, but I wouldn't risk betting on it. Just don't sit in the front row if you like your clothes.


Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. Closes Jan. 31. $10-$19.