Walking into the theater for Eightythree Down at Under St. Mark’s is like going back in time. The eighties music provides a backdrop to the Duran Duran and Bowie posters, the VHS tapes on the bookshelves, and the level of electronic technology. The year is 1983, but it won’t be for long. Tonight is New Year’s Eve, and Martin thinks he is going to spend a quiet evening at home. The Horse Trade and Hard Sparks production of J. Stephen Brantley’s play is overdone at times, but is still a nice piece of theater. First of all, I must admit that I was not alive in the year 1983, though I am a child of the 80’s. But whether or not you can actually remember New Year’s Eve 1983, Janie Bullard’s sound design, Eugenia Furneaux-Arends’s set and Tristan Raines’s costumes immediately place you in the time period. The effect is both nostalgic and satirical, occasionally bordering on cheesy. There are the obligatory jokes about assumptions about the future, including many ironic cell phone and car phone discussions.
Ian Holcomb, Melody Bates Photo Credit:Hunter Canning However, beyond this superficial banter, and in between the eighties slang, there are real characters. Our underdog protagonist Martin, well-played by Brian Miskell, is a sheltered 27 year old living in his parents’ basement in Great Neck. We truly feel sorry for him when his drunk and high friend Dina (Melody Bates) and her two roommates Stuart (Ian Holcomb) and Tony (Bryan Kaplan) burst into his room. Miskell’s Martin is an eighties version of the nerdy social introvert, begging comparisons with Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network . His charming innocence provides the conflict in the play, as these wild characters have clearly disrupted his personal sanctuary.
And these characters are indeed wild. Bates’s Dina is a performer herself, constantly throwing herself at all of the men, even those who are interested in other men. I appreciate the excellent way that Bates achieves an effect of someone who was really under the influence, though her constant breathiness and bodily ticks started to irritate me. But to be fair, I think Dina is meant to irritate. Dina is a woman who believes herself to be charming and seductive, when she is really sloppy and over the top.
Brian Miskell, Ian Holcomb Photo Credit:Hunter Canning This brings me to my major problem with the play: the interplay between the characters of Dina and Tony. Tony is stereotypical misogynistic, homophobic, hyper-masculine brute. Dina is the damsel in distress, who spends a great deal of time whimpering in the corner. I know we’re talking about 1983, but really? Do we need an Italian Stanley Kowalski? Whereas Dina has a few moments of deep revelation during the play, we never see Tony’s softer side. I want to point out that I think that Kaplan’s performance is not “at fault” here, but rather the stereotype is in the writing. I believe that Brantley thinks he is showing Tony’s weakness for Dina a few times, but it was never enough to humanize him for me.
Tony’s character also leads to a solid part of the play being shouted as the actors throw each other about. Though the stage combat is good, especially considering the proximity of the audience to the violence, I feel that the tone lingers there too long. Daniel Talbott’s direction does a nice job of using the space during those scenes, but the vocal levels need to be varied in order to maintain the arc of the story. If shouting is not used sparingly, we become accustomed to it, and it loses its affective value.
Talbott’s best direction is evident in the scenes between Stuart (Holcomb) and Martin. These two actors go through a great deal of situations and relationships in their interactions on stage, and the character work for both of them is excellent. I also enjoyed the scene I referenced a short time ago between Dina and Martin, where the two of them finally have a real conversation.
Brantley’s writing provides these moments, which are a nice framework around the somewhat drawn-out climax. And despite a few missteps, this is a well-performed show with a greatly immersive environment. So if you’re not afraid of yelling and you’re feeling nostalgic for Debbie Harry and car phones, go check out Eightythree Down .