Up, Up, Down, Down!
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
February 3, 2011
Joy doesn’t play video games anymore. But she works in an arcade full of rude, game-obsessed children. She has a crush on her hard-core, gamer co-worker. When she’s nervous she chants "up up down down left right left right B A B A select start." Her imaginary friend is Spiff Spanington (a video game character) and she talks to him when she’s alone. But she doesn’t play video games anymore.
She does wake up all the time in the middle of the night, afraid that she’s stopped breathing. She chases sleeping pills with beer. She logs the activity of her eccentric table lamp in her journal. She goes to the grocery store at exactly the same time every week and buys the same items and gives exact change. She freaks out about impending social activities. And most of all she worries that she’ll end up like her crazy Mom.
Joy is the central character in Up, Up, Down, Down! – the successful new play by Barton Bishop performing at the Access Theater. The set (designed by Elizabeth Barrett Groth) is papered in video game posters. There are seven video screens on stage. Pretty much the only furniture is some plastic chairs that look like they were stolen from a Laundromat. I wasn’t sure if the set was supposed to represent Joy’s home décor or the arcade or if it was supposed to just interpret the general world of the play. I was okay with that. I liked that I wasn’t sure if her home looked like an arcade or vice versa.
Overall the acting and writing in the play are great. It took me a while to warm up to Joy (played by Allyson Morgan), who is very guarded, tense, and abrasive without much variation throughout the play. Somehow the smaller, supporting characters seem more nuanced, truthful, and well-rounded, although they are played as big caricatures. The ensemble nailing this difficult dichotomy are Carter Gill (as Spiff Spanington, the anime-style imaginary friend), Ben Williams (Joy’s geeky gamer crush), Christopher T. VanDijk (a mysterious stranger), Amy Tribbey (Joy’s trashy, bipolar mother Missy), and Jonathan O’Brien (Missy’s stoner/musician boyfriend Tom). I think my favorite scene was Tom’s impromptu guitar song to a “plush manatee” stuffed animal. Are these characters stereotypes? Yes. But that didn’t diminish the audience’s fun seeing the actors run with their eccentricities whole-hog.
All this Red Bull-binging, beeping, shooting aside, the play is at its strongest in the second half when we get some two-person scenes. They are between unlikely pairings of characters and suddenly the play becomes about things intimate and beautiful. Through the journey of the play we see the love beneath all the snippy, insulting dialogue and hurt that came before.
Although I really enjoyed Up, Up, Down, Down!, I probably would have found it even funnier if I had ever been a video game fan myself. There was a lot of laughter around me from references I didn’t get. But I certainly could appreciate the strong character writing, strong character acting, and the heart that pulls it all together.