Through imagination, theater can transport an audience to any exotic time or place. But sometimes, to ponder the big questions of life, you need only go as far as a nearby basement.
That's where the three buddies of "Leveling Up," which opened Thursday at Theatre UCF, spend most of their days: In the basement of the house they share, playing video games on their state-of-the-art system.
Theatre UCF is among the first to present this new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer, the award-winning writer best known for "End Days," a post 9-11 dark comedy about a dysfunctional family. Laufer's latest features its own troubled clan, bound if not by blood than by their love of gaming.
At Theatre UCF, director Mark Routhier deftly brings out the many strengths of Laufer's play: It's thoughtful without being didactic, it's funny without being silly, its characters (all well-acted) seem real. Most important, even if — like me — you know nothing about video games, the journey of these characters engrosses.
The phrase "leveling up" is how game players refer to their onscreen characters developing new skills and becoming stronger. Each level achieved by a warrior in a battle game, for example, makes him more powerful. But the humans in the play need to focus on something more flesh-and-blood real: Growing up.
Ian is a gaming champ, courted by the National Security Agency for a mysterious job as the play opens. Level-headed Chuck works as a casino dealer when he's not gaming. Their third housemate, fast-talking Zander, is desperate for money — though his devotion to games has impaired his ability to get a job. Zander's girlfriend, naïve Jeannie, is a frequent visitor.
From under the shoot-'em-up camaraderie, emotions bubble to the surface as the friends mature at different rates, and Jeannie makes a strong impression on each of them. Ian especially is forced to face adulthood suddenly when it turns out his NSA job is literally a matter of life and death.
As Ian, Patrick Sylvester has a beautifully believable transformation from the dude shouting "Awesome!" at every virtual kill to the tearful figure realizing that real actions have real consequences.
Painstaking attention to detail permeates UCF's polished production. James Davis' lighting makes the unseen TV set, ever flickering in the players' faces, its own character. Vandy Wood's clever set design makes the door to the "real world" an imposing portal, while giving a wink to the classic videogame Tetris.
There's occasional repetition in Laufer's dialogue and it took the young actors, on opening-night adrenaline, a few minutes to settle into their roles. But these are trifling points about a show that on any level is a winner.
• What: Theatre UCF production of a new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer
• Note: Adult language and implied sexual content
• Length: 1:30, no intermission
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 26
• Where: Theatre UCF, off University Boulevard and Alafaya Trail on the University of Central Florida campus in east Orange County
• Tickets: $20, $18 seniors, $10 students
• Call: 407-823-1500Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun