BOTTOM LINE: Wonderfully chaotic romping tornado of a play with a first-rate ensemble cast.
Set in a New York suburb on New Years Eve 1983, J. Stephen Brantley’s Eightythree Down is a daring whirlwind of violence and taboo. Martin (Brian Miskell) lives a safe life in his parents basement, occupying his time with records and facts about birds. He is woken on New Years Eve by his best friend from high school, Dina (Melody Bates), and two of her new acquaintances: Stuart (Ian Holcomb) and Tony (Bryan Kaplan). The trio, with each member representing various degrees of vibrant degenerates, has fled to Martin’s house looking for help after they find themselves in some big city trouble. What follows is an explosive hour of theater which at it’s very core explores the difference between living life and simply living, because despite the fact that Martin’s home is essentially invaded by a ban of drug addicted criminals who range in temperament from violent to victim, Martin’s cocoon of safety and sheltered suburban life make him the tragic outcast of this show.
Doing justice to Brantley’s dynamic script, the cast pushes through nearly every moment with an almost unbridled sense of energy. Bates' portrayal of Dina is a perfect tribute to an '80s caricature. She weaves bubblegum sweet words and tones into every moment and runs at a constantly manic pace. Holcomb plays British punk Stuart as a sexy mess of a character and finds depth that a lesser actor may skim over. Kaplan’s portrayal of Tony is completely bipolar in the very best way possible. When he is angry, he smothers the stage in the power of his violence, but in the next moment is almost forgotten, quiet in the corner. And as the sheltered suburbanite Martin, Miskell is more far more than adequate. His character’s feeling of inadequacy and frustration is endearing and nearly palpable.
Director Daniel Talbott took full advantage of his powerhouse cast's range and openness and the entire hour is filled with not just emotional ferocity, but with turbulent physicality. The cast seems to never stop moving around the small playing space, utilized fantastically by set designer Eugenia Furneau-Arends who was challenged in this project by having to make a set that can be more or less destroyed on a nightly basis.
Eightythree Down isn’t a perfect production. There were times I wished the stakes were higher, there was an awkward transition or two, and a line here or there that fell flat -- but at its best, Eightythree Down is what off off Broadway theater should be about. It’s brave, gritty, passionate and entertaining and anyone who has been disheartened by theater that is either entirely too safe or entirely too alienating should rejoice in this piece.
(Eightythree Down plays at Under St. Marks Theater, 93 St. Marks Place, through September 17, 2011. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at smarttix.com.)