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The funny, fascinating history of Atari is enough; no need to keep mashing the controller.
In telling the story of the video-game company Atari, local playwright Spenser Davis goes big. His play Merge, premiering with the New Colony, spans almost 30 years and uses 16 actors to portray dozens of characters. And if that seems like overkill, it’s really not. The tale of Atari earns that real estate.
Probably the most important of the play’s many characters is Nolan Bushnell (Wes Needham), a bored theme park manager who, in 1969, started making arcade games with his friend Ted Dabney (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.), eventually leading them to found Atari. Other pivotal characters include early employee and late holdout Dawn Kessler (Stephanie Shum), visionary game designer Patti York (Lindsey Pearlman) and the Warner Brothers suit who ruined it all, Stuart Nygard (Will Cavedo).
The show follows a familiar trajectory—it’s basically The Social Network’s goofy, stoner cousin—but it does so with plenty of verve. Davis’s fast-moving script draws his characters in bold silhouettes and with bright colors, and it also makes ample use of the video game tropes at its disposal. The stage itself, a fantastic, rainbow-striped set by John Wilson, is rendered as an arcade cabinet, complete with a screen across the back wall. The 8-bit video design by Paul Deziel is a highlight. If Scott Pilgrim Versus The World is your jam, then this is the show for you.
Or rather, it might be. Merge is not without its flaws, particularly when it comes to the production’s pace, energy level and volume, all of which could be described as “coked up beyond belief.” And to be fair, so are many of the characters—okay, most of the characters—but director Andrew Hobgood takes things too far. Actors blow through punchlines, shout through scenes, drown out important dialogue and generally treat the whole show like it’s a race to the finish.
The show’s best moments and performances are its calmest and quietest. Pearlman steals every single scene she’s in as the droll, sarcastic Patti, as does Omer Abbas Salem as a slimy WB exec named Manny. With the rise and fall of Atari, Merge has a great story to tell. It’s just hard to hear it sometimes over all the racket.
The New Colony at the Den Theatre. By Spenser Davis. Directed by Andrew Hobgood. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.