Wednesday, June 3, 2015

New Theatre: Leveling Up (reviews)

New Theatre opened its production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Leveling Up at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center on May 30, 2015.
In this new play, three twenty-something roommates are glued to their video games. They are masters of the virtual worlds behind the computer screens in their Las Vegas basement. When one of them uses his gaming skills to land a job with the National Security Agency launching actual drones and missiles, online battles begin to have real consequences.
Ricky J. Martinez directed a cast that included Joel Alexander, Daniel Gil, Danny Leonard, and Rebecca Jimenez.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Avid gamers, current and former, and their (likely frustrated) parents are going to get Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play Leveling Up in a way that those who have never succumbed to the siren song of video games just won’t.  The three early-20s guys in New Theatre’s new production of the play at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center aren’t just gaming enthusiasts. They’re addicted.
New Theatre artistic director Ricky J. Martinez has cast four fine young actors in his production, which is set in a basement lair co-designed by the director and Nicole Quintana.
Gil, who sometimes plays Ian with the flat affect of a guy whose mind is a thousand other places and a million steps ahead of everyone else, becomes frightening when he lets go emotionally and rightly disturbed once Ian knows that a death-and-destruction disconnect isn’t possible in his new job. Alexander is charming and sly as Chuck lets his crush on Jeannie express itself way too vividly in a Sims-style game. Leonard is funny — and sad — as Zander, the slacker whose grip on reality is tenuous as best. Jimenez makes Jeannie a dream girl whose choice of career comes in handy as she deals with the boy-men in Ian’s basement.
Martinez and company try to set the mood and lure the audience into the world of Ian, Chuck, Zander and Jeannie with some preshow banter, the actors on set playing games, then getting into some light saber combat, then going “out” for pizza. Trouble is, Laufer’s written dialogue is far superior, many levels up from the hanging-out silliness that precedes it. Leveling Up is plenty compelling as is.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Laufer’s play getting an intriguing production by New Theatre is about far more than a 20-something gaming magus in Las Vegas hired to remotely operate drones that eliminate real targets in the Middle East.
The often wry and witty play asks more macro questions. Has technology deadened a generation’s sense of societal kinship? Has it eroded their humanity until the idea of morals and values is more alien than the targets they blast away at? Have they walled off all manner of reality including true human interaction?  But the New Theatre production underscores Laufer’s bottom line: You can’t cheat reality forever.
Artistic Director Ricky J. Martinez and his cast create a convincing quartet of young adults barely conscious of losing four hours at a time living inside virtual environments – and frankly not being all that concerned when it’s pointed out to them.  But they are not the cartoonish zombies that their parents probably think they are. The actors create people deeply entrenched in decades of shared pop culture and whose interests certainly encompass sex. Their common denominator – even the most goal-oriented – is a tragically vague rootlessness in a society whose value system seems to them spurious and pointless.
The basement set by Martinez and Nicole Quintana is brilliantly equipped to resemble exactly what 20-somethings would buy with their first paychecks: computer equipment, Star Wars light sabers, the Millennium Falcon, Guitar Hero axes and oversized action figures.
We know that New Theatre’s home at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center is a long ways off for other residents in the county and even farther for Broward theater lovers. But New Theatre’s work keeps getting stronger, often making it worth the drive.
Kathryn Ryan reviewed for Edge Miami:
The world of gaming becomes a metaphor for coping with loneliness, addiction, and discovering one's purpose in life. While wrestling their existential angst, this rudderless foursome either run away or stick around in the (RW) real world to find the true meaning of friendship.
The cast is able to navigate a myriad of emotions in telling the story. Jimenez as the nurturing girlfriend excels. Her performance refreshingly natural, she is an actress to watch in the future. For his part Leonard, as her boyfriend, grapples successfully with Zander's unscrupulous behavior wrapped in an air of affability. Alexander as Chuck provides most of the comic relief as the starry-eyed stoner in lust with Jeannie. Their virtual sex is well paced and captivating to watch.
As Ian, Gil handles the isolation, jealousy and horror experienced by the character well. He is unconvincing engaging in the physical actions, such as kicking the couch or getting into a fight, but his emotional depth more than makes up for it.
The set by both Nicole Quintana and director Ricky Martinez is straight out of "The Big Bang Theory" but with the addition of a digital drum set, lava lamp, hookah, Pac-Man wall hangings, four hanging electric guitars, wall mounted swords and laser light sabers. The complete set gives the audience an eyeful. There is also a massive video screen overhead where the games are displayed.
The video clips by video and sound designer Anton Church bring the gaming world to life on stage. His sound design, accompanied by Eric Nelson's lighting, also excels in keeping the emotional pace of the piece.
Martinez again proves why he is one of the best directors in south Florida. He does not miss any beats in his exploration of the many themes in "Leveling Up." He directs his acting n00bs, or young actors, with both a light touch and a strong hand and the result is a highly entertaining and introspective evening of theatre.
The New Theatre production of Leveling Up plays at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center through June 21, 2015.

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