Acting in ‘Leveling Up’ is a level above
This past Thursday, the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts debuted its production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Leveling Up,” directed by Prof. Robert Walsh (THA). Ushers welcomed theatergoers into the Laurie Theater, seating them on three sides of the in-ground stage. The in-the-round seating style of the relatively small venue provides a closeness and intimacy between the audience and the performers, ideal for a very human, relatable piece such as this story of college-age friends at the edge of adolescent gamer culture and the real world.
Before the show even started, the set and props made clear the naturalistic tone of the piece. With no curtain blocking the audience’s view in the moments before the start of the show, the set appeared simple and authentically lived-in. A dingy, earth-tone couch, some gaming consoles, a lava lamp and a few posters decorated a realistic recreation of a post-graduate basement apartment. Novelty neon signs cast a mechanical light over the homey scene.
The first scene of “Leveling Up” presents the major themes of the show to come. Characters Jeannie (Gabi Nail ’18) and Chuck (Ben Astrachan ’19) sit on a couch together, both wrapped in two very different sides of one conversation. Jeannie tries to explain her aspirations and confusions about oncoming post-graduate life, while Chuck passively “yesses” her as he engages in a video game. Jeannie’s touchingly earnest nature clashes against Chuck’s lifeless stare into the cold glow of the TV screen. This scene yielded big laughs from the audience, but also hinted at the heart of the play: a deeper discussion of friendship, of growing up, of reality versus escapism.
From there, the play quickly establishes its tight cast of just four characters. Jeannie and Chuck are joined by Zander (Dan Souza ’19), Jeannie’s charming, albeit slacker, boyfriend, and Ian (Andrew Child ’19), a video-game and computer prodigy dogged by job offers to be an armed drone pilot for the NSA. Ian’s career development juxtaposed with his friends’ passive, video game-centric lifestyle becomes the main plot point driving the show. His work life brings political relevance and real emotional turmoil to the otherwise mostly lighthearted production. Laufer strings the narrative together with lots of mid-aught-specific references and gamer slang (mentions of Dick Cheney, “epic win/fail,” “pwned,” etc.) For me, this lingo felt jarring and dated, especially early on. However, as the play progresses, the underlying message shines through. Regardless of the time, setting or lifestyle of the characters, the relationships between Ian, Zander, Jeannie and Chuck resonate as authentic, relatable college-age friendships.
Small moments of attention to detail by the cast and crew of the show alike help to cement the realism of “Leveling Up.” The cords of the set’s electronic devices are not tucked away for aesthetic perfection; instead, they dangle and knot together, giving the characters’ home a flawed, human quality. In one scene, Chuck digs through couch cushions to find a remote to turn on the TV. In another, he spontaneously decides to sit on his chair backwards. Details like these were not necessary, but they made the characters and their world feel more real, more fully fleshed out and more idiosyncratic. With such a small cast, an emphasis on character development was clear. One scene, revolving around Zander accidentally selling an in-game item that Ian worked with, showcases the actors’ characters and relationship choices. Zander’s endearing cluelessness grates against Ian’s driven nature, while Jeannie and Chuck unify as a stable middle ground between the two, pointing to the potential for a deeper connection between them. Souza, Child, Nail and Astrachan embodied these roles within the fictional friend group effectively, giving diversity to the personalities of their characters.
Technically, “Leveling Up” ran cleanly and effectively. Between scenes punk rock blasts, reflecting both the music tastes of the mid-2000s and the tension underlying the characters’ relationships. The stage lights mimic the cold, robotic glow of a TV screen. One scene featured some less-than-convincing stage combat, but otherwise the show was very technically strong.
Intermittently funny, touching and heart-breaking, “Leveling Up” presents college-age friendship with sensitivity and naturalism.Well-fleshed out performances and overall technical precision made the show a relatable, entertaining experience for the Department of Theater Arts’ audience.