The past is a strange and distant country, and we are refugees with no right of return. J. Stephen Brantley’s new play 83 Down playing at Under St. Marks is a postcard from that country. On one side is a montage of evocative images – Duran Duran posters, car telephones, TV top cable boxes, Ronald Reagan’s avuncular smile – and on the other side is a cryptic prophecy that reads: pleasure is punishment; freedom is bondage.
It is December 31st 1983, one hour before midnight, and Martin, a student at an obscure Long Island community college and avid bird watcher, is asleep in his bed. His bedroom is a (paradoxically cramped) finished basement in his parents’ sprawling, nouveaux-riche Montauk mansion. Dina, Martin’s best friend from high school, and her two nefarious confederates, Stuart and Tony, burst in like three evil fairies of the apocalypse to help Martin celebrate the New Year. Dina is a wannabe Dietrich-esque video vamp; Tony is an Italian-American roughneck; and Stuart is a hunky, bi-sexual, post-punk, New Romantic searching for the TV sound. They are refugees from The City – where real life happens – and they brought with them trouble, destruction, and its attendant jouissance.
Martin is trapped safe physically, mentally, and emotionally in the snug confines of his parents’ basement. He is protected by his intellect, his money, and his culture, which conspire to shield him from the orgiastic madness of the world. The merry pranksters invade Martin’s bunker like Reagan invaded Granada – either to liberate or destroy it, and they don’t care which. Tony wants to steal Martin’s money; Stuart wants to take his chastity; and Dina wants to say her last goodbye to youth and optimism. She tells Martin the three of them are running from the mob and the law, and they won’t stop till they get to Mexico.
And of course Martin yearns for liberation too. He also desperately wants a way out of innocence, but he’s too smart to do it the way Dina and her evil imps did, with cheap thrills and fast money. If 83 Down is Martin’s nostalgic reverie, he is having it as a successful, professional gay man, living in Manhattan, making his killing by selling financial weapons of mass destruction.
Nostalgic reverie aside, 83 Down is a closet story dressed in coming-of-age drag. The direction is tight, and the actors keep the intensity high for a full hour. This is, without a doubt, edge-of-your-seat theater. Bryan Kaplan as Tony is Brando-as-Kowalski – murderously insecure and dangerously wired. Melody Bates’s evocation of the sexy-pathetic ruined party girl is right on. Brian Miskell’s cringing naïveté mitigates the basic passivity of his character, making his ultimate transformation from wilting wall flower to gun wielding bitch nearly believable. Ian Holcomb’s Stuart is electric and sexy. His seductiveness is a necessary and properly balanced counterweight to Tony’s bluster.
As I walked out of the theater and down 1st avenue, I thought about the closing of the Mars Bar, the gentrification of the East Village, and the passing away of the city that was home to Dina, Stuart, Tony, and (eventually) Martin. That city, seen from a distance, shrouded in the mists of memory, was a glamorous emanation, like Dietrich in Blonde Venus. When we lived in it, the past seemed like a prison we desperately needed to escape. But now that we have our freedom, like Martin, we see that the past was freedom, full of hope, opportunity, and the future. It had the urgency of now that we only recover from old songs, photos, and postcards like 83 Down.