Critic's PickOh, grow up. We’ve all heard that, right? Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has found a vein of universality in her new play, Leveling Up, using the world of online gaming in which players vie for higher levels of power and accomplishment, as a metaphor for growing up. Receiving its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse, the show has meaning whether you’ve stared slack-jawed at a screen for hours on end or pursued a daydream of sports or music stardom. Finding your way in life and discerning what’s real and possible from what’s addictive is nothing new.
Recently finished with college, geeky gamer Ian (Sean Mellott), affable slacker Chuck (Bobby Moreno) and handsome loser Zander (Ben Morrow) spend 20 hours a day with their headsets on and their eyes glued to screens where mortal combat and “epic fails” are the norm. Zander’s compassionate girlfriend Jeannie (Ali Rose Dachis) is still in school and troubled that the trio seem adrift and satisfied with life in fantasy worlds. Dance Revolution (which she’s playing as the audience takes their seats) is equally captivating, and she’s not immune to time-wasting activities. While they all aspire to “level up” — that is, to rise through the challenges of their online worlds — it’s easy to keep on playing and avoiding things “IRL” … “in real life.”
But when Ian is recruited by the National Security Agency (NSA) to use his skills to fly drones in real combat zones, boundaries become blurred and disturbing. He’s overwhelmed by stress, and camaraderie breaks down over issues of money and relationships.
Laufer’s startlingly contemporary script and the Playhouse production, staged by Wendy Goldberg from the O’Neill Theatre Center (where the show was developed), are believably here and now, replete with bursts of humor, anxiety and violence. Kevin Depinet’s design for the basement set, decorated with cluttered with pizza boxes, crushed cans of beer and Mountain Dew, and a tangle of keyboards, joysticks, cables and gaming controllers feels totally in the moment. It’s easy to feel the powerful pull as they stare at an invisible screen — the front edge of the stage — and to realize how easy it is to fall into these imagined worlds. But the pressure to “level up” IRL is waiting, just upstairs.
LEVELING UP, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through March 10.