Performing Arts

Fantasy wars with reality in New Theatre’s ‘Leveling Up’

Joel Alexander, Daniel Gil, Danny Leonard and Rebecca Jimenez are gamers in New Theatre’s ‘Leveling Up.’
Joel Alexander, Daniel Gil, Danny Leonard and Rebecca Jimenez are gamers in New Theatre’s ‘Leveling Up.’ Eileen Suarez

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.

Maybe they’re not addicted like the few poor souls who have died after days and nights of nonstop playing. But except for when one is at his casino job and another one is having private time with his understanding girlfriend, they’re staring at a screen trying to “level up” on the way to beating a game.

Ian (Daniel Gil) is landlord to the other two, a brilliant gamer who’s light years ahead of his pals. His abilities have come to the attention of the National Security Administration, which is recruiting people like Ian for its drone program, making long-distance war in a way not unlike a violent video game — except that the bloodshed is real. Ian, who uses his gaming prowess to make real-world money, is thinking about it.

His pal Chuck (Joel Alexander) is a Blackjack dealer who’s perched on Ian’s basement sofa with a controller in his hands whenever he’s not separating gamblers from their money. Their buddy Zander (Danny Leonard) is a guy who just can’t seem to get anything going, other than gaming and romancing his girlfriend Jeannie (Rebecca Jimenez). Jeannie enjoys video games too, but she’s far more passionate about earning her degree in psychology so she can help adolescents. Real life, she assures Ian, can be just as “epic” as a major gaming win.

Laufer uses the particulars and minutiae of the gaming world to get to deeper observations about barely adult players who find living in a fantasy world much more enticing than real-life interaction. That their “friends” are pseudonyms on a screen, that they subsist on pizza in a basement and have no plans other than getting to the next level matters not at all to them.

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.

The place is decorated with movie-related figures, a guitar with a Batman design, all manner of controllers, a microwave that gets used to make popcorn (an unusually aromatic theater experience) and a couple of light sabers. Above the playing area, sound and video designer Anton Church samples different kinds of games. The set is, in other words, a playground for guys stuck in perpetual adolescence.

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.

If you go

What: ‘Leveling Up’ by Deborah Zoe Laufer.

Where: New Theatre production at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay.

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, through June 21.

Cost: $26 in advance, $31 day of show ($15 student rush tickets under 25).

Information: 786-573-5300 or www.smdcac.org.

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