Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Hallie Gordon. With Carolyn Braver, Jerry Mackinnon, Clancy McCartney, JJ Phillips. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The video games I preferred in my youth were mostly innocuous side-scrollers on my NES and Sega Genesis consoles—Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, Altered Beast, the surprisingly entertaining Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker—or subversively brainy PC adventure games (Space Quest 4-eva). Not much like the gleefully debauched Grand Theft Auto series or first-person shooters like Halo, Bioshock or Call of Duty, the “violent video games” over which so many hands are wrung today, blaming them for everything from desensitization to inciting real-life youth violence.
Yet even back in my day, concerns raged over virtual violence; the first two Mortal Kombat games, released in 1992 and ’93, helped pave the way for congressional hearings that led to video game ratings. And with the perceived increase in school shootings over the last two decades, every incident, from Jonesboro to Columbine to Newtown, seems to bring with it a rehashing of accusations and assumptions about violent games.
The disconnect between onscreen violence that takes place in a computer processor and onscreen violence that takes place on the ground halfway around the world is one of the provocative driving ideas behind Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, presented as part of Steppenwolf’s teen-targeted Young Adults program. Leveling Up uses gaming and its stigmas as a fairly effective metaphor for the challenges of finding oneself as a young adult—in this case, a foursome of Nevada early-twentysomethings.
Ian (Clancy McCartney) is a professional gamer, a socially awkward introvert who makes bank by “leveling up” the MMRPG avatars of lazier and less-talented online bros. He makes enough money, in fact, to cover rent on the house he shares with his best friend Zander (JJ Phillips), a charismatic college dropout who seems to skate by on his looks. The play takes place entirely in the house’s basement, which Ian never seems to leave; Zander, their other friend Chuck (Jerry MacKinnon) and Zander’s girlfriend Jeannie (Carolyn Braver), a college senior majoring in child psychology, filter in and out, playing video games of all stripes while chugging beers and/or Monster energy drinks out of the basement minifridge.
Ian’s mad gaming skills get him an unusual job offer: He’s recruited by the National Security Agency to assist with remotely targeting drone strikes. As much as he tries to detach himself from the real effects of his new line of work, needling by Jeannie (who it must be said is presented a bit too facilely as the “normal” voice of reason, despite persuasive work by Braver) gets under his skin, until stress, sleep deprivation and guilt finally lead him to crack.
Zander, chagrined by Ian’s impressive new job and owing his roommate a hefty chunk of change, gets duped by a pyramid scheme and must decide whether to face his responsibility to those he’s roped in, while Chuck has to learn to assert himself. (Jeannie, the responsible one, is always saying she has to go study, until—oh no!—one day she games so long she misses a class.)
The threat of succumbing to selling scam nutritional supplements doesn’t quite stand up to the debate about drone strikes on a moral quandary level. But all four actors in Hallie Gordon’s staging are winning in their portrayals of the uncertain edge of youth, with Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic design and Anna Henson’s projections providing an impressively immersive gaming experience. For Steppenwolf for Young Adults, it’s an impressively up-to-date and uncondescending treatment of the world online and off.