nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
September 1, 2011
Eightythree Down is a fast-paced action play that occasionally offers psychological insights into its characters, but more often barrels forward with fever-pitched conflict. J. Stephen Brantley's chosen protagonist is Martin, a reclusive twentysomething who has chosen to spend New Year's Eve 1983 alone in his basement bedroom in his childhood home. His high school friend Dina arrives with two low-lifes with whom she's become entangled. They are in need of a car that will make it to Mexico, away from an unplanned murder one of them has just committed. It is obvious that they are in over their heads, and hyped up on some combination of chemicals, and the three prowl Martin's bedroom like caged animals.
Accordingly, the play seems to dramatize the complexities of human interaction at times of conflict, and the inability of reason (embodied by Martin) to resolve matters of brute force (embodied by Tony, the more muscular of the criminals). The most compelling moments of the show, however, come during the infrequent breaks in the action, when the pace slows and the dialogue becomes representative of something beyond the two characters speaking. One such moment occurs when Tony and Dina excuse themselves to go have sex in Martin's backyard. Stuart, a skinny British punk whose style emulates Billy Idol, takes advantage of their departure to call into question Martin's sexual orientation. Soon they are making out against Martin's beloved bookshelf, his prized volumes falling to the floor, and one has the impression that our protagonist is indulging his impulses for perhaps the first time in his life. Their interchange is so simple, and Martin's conflicted response so inevitable, that the play suddenly becomes about the walls that one constructs around his or her world, at the risk of shutting out happiness or self-actualization.
Brantley's script seems to contain several of these moments, however not all of them are fully explored in this production. Daniel Talbott's direction is to be commended for its understanding of the rabid psychology of the hapless criminals, and the conflicted sensibilities of old friends Martin and Dina. The play certainly moves quickly, and is a joy to watch. The speed of the production also proves to be its one detraction, however, as lines of dialogue are delivered so fast that the audience occasionally loses the words. Other times, characters take action without the preceding motivation clearly defined. The result is that the characters risk coming off as one-note personalities rather than the chronically hopeful yet misguided souls revealed in the play's softer, slower moments.
Ian Holcomb as Stuart and Bryan Kaplan as Tony deliver commanding performances, and are perhaps the most at home with the material. Melody Bates as Dina has some wonderful moments when her characters' illusions come under fire, but more often plays one-note hysteria due to the show's strenuous pacing. Brian Miskell is still finding his footing in the lead role, seemingly stuck in his character's restraint. Late in the show, Dina compares Martin to a species of bird who slaves over the building of his nest without any awareness of the outside world. When his sense of safety is breached at the top of the play, however, he is anything but territorial. He professes to love Dina but only passively tries to save her from her own self-destruction. He is said to obsess over his books on birds and plants but doesn't seem to notice Tony and Stuart messing with them upon their arrival. While Martin's weak character traits are certainly products of the script, one has the impression that they are hindering, rather than informing, Miskell's interactions with the rest of the cast. Likely, this is due to the challenge of how to make an inactive character active, which may resolve itself as the show's run progresses.
Costume design by Tristan Raines is outstanding, especially for Stuart and Dina. Scenic design by Eugenia Furneaux-Arends and sound design by Janie Bullard set the early '80s tone perfectly.
Overall, Eightythree Down is an exciting night of theater with writing that gives its performers plenty of room for discovery. Hopefully, as the run progresses, the pacing will slow to allow deeper exploration of the play's less action-packed sequences.