There are not many plays, or even movies for that matter, about video games and the people who play them. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively new medium, or because it is difficult to portray the pastime accurately or perhaps it is a combination of the two. Nevertheless, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “Leveling Up” tackles the culture surrounding this activity and achieves mixed results.
Ultimately, the use of gaming in the show is a vehicle to explore technology as a whole and the correlation between the real world and the virtual, as the script delves into other topics such as identity, growing up and even drone warfare. The show bites off more than it can chew in a few places, but its strong themes and the high quality of the Brandeis Theater Department’s production ensure that it gets most of its message across. Directed by Prof. Robert Walsh (TA), “Leveling Up” ran from March 9-12 in Spingold’s Laurie Theater.
“Leveling Up” begins by introducing us to four friends who play video games together. Tensions arise once Zander (Dan Souza ’19) reveals that he sold a virtual mask procured in a game by Ian (Andrew Child ’19) for a measly $10,000 when it was somehow worth $30,000. Have you ever gotten a gold star in Mario Party and then tried to sell it to the friend sitting next to you for real money? Neither have I, but the opening conflict of the show rests on a similar conceit.
Despite some odd portrayals of video game culture, the show reaches its stride once Ian lands a job piloting drones for the NSA. It is here that the show’s more interesting themes are explored, as Ian has trouble coming to terms with the fact that his job has real life consequences but is modeled after the virtual games he plays so often. The fine line between reality and illusion is explored in other ways, such as when Zander takes up selling dietary supplements, which prove to be a scam, to the surprise of no one. Once Ian and Zander reach their wits’ end, it’s up to Chuck (Ben Astrachan ’19) and Jeannie (Gabi Nail ’18), two of the play’s more likable characters, to try to salvage what they can from the situation.
Even before the actors arrived onstage, it was immediately clear what kind of people their characters were, as the audience was treated to a view of a fascinating and elaborate set of their basement apartment designed by Harrison Fuhrer ’17. Posters of various video games adorned the back walls, with the consoles and controllers themselves placed front and center. Small details such as trash under the couch and notes on the refrigerator gave the space a lived-in feel. Various decorations and belongings strewn about or lying on shelves gave a sense of the personalities and interests of the inhabitants.
Likewise, the other design elements of the production were also top notch. For a show in which characters are often sitting in front of the TV, it would have been easy to have one onstage. Instead, the production made the more creative decision to convey the screen through lighting and sound.
While interesting in theory, the script itself has a few rough patches. The story is intriguing and its messages are thought provoking, but the language and characters have weak spots. Terms like “epic win” and “pwned” are used liberally throughout, which may have been popular at some point in time but come off today as cheesy. In one scene, characters repeatedly mention that they “leveled up” but thankfully don’t turn to the audience and wink as they do so.
The biggest issue with the script is that it has only a single female character, who is relegated to mostly watching boys play video games and little else. It would have been interesting to see Jeannie in the center of the action in a subversion of the “boys and their video games” trope, but instead she is given separate interests of her own, which are then pushed to the background. Despite having little to go with, Nail was able to make the character her own by granting her a strong point of view. She served as a window for the audience, constantly reacting to the antics of the people around her and conveying what she thought of them through her expressions and actions.
Across the board, the performances of the four leads were phenomenal. Chuck was arguably the most clearly defined role in the show, but Astrachan made him even more enjoyable to watch through his friendly disposition and witty delivery. On the flip side, Ian was tough to love, but Child provided him with humanity amid his standoffish nature. Even though Zander and Jeannie were on the one-dimensional side, Souza and Nail brought them to life and added agency to their predicaments.
Every cast member used the script to their advantage, but some of the best moments in the show had no dialogue at all. One of the funniest parts was when Chuck, Jeannie and Ian began reacting to the intimate encounter of their virtual avatars in a role-playing game, which quickly turned chilling once it became apparent that Ian was taking the game too far.
“Leveling Up” played around with a lot of different elements, some of which hit their mark more than others. The themes were interesting despite rough patches in the dialogue. Some of the characters were based a bit too much on tropes, but it is a testament to the acting that they ended up feeling like real people. Walsh’s directing kept the show surprisingly dynamic, considering that it took place almost entirely in a basement and primarily on a couch. And thanks to the design, the basement was an interesting place all on its own. “Leveling Up” never hit its max, but it operated on a level that was just high enough to make it worthwhile.