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by Michael L. Quintos
There's an old adage that says a person has at least one other person somewhere in the world whom they're meant to be with, and that fate will eventually bring them together. That idea seems to be the impetus for Chance Theater's production of Adam Szymkowicz's 2006 play NERVE, which continues its West Coast debut performances through February 27 in Anaheim Hills. It's an intriguing play to be sure, filled with expectation-shattering exchanges that questions the very concept of healthy, working relationships. Along the way, we learn about our two daters—their foibles and personal demons all come unraveling for our amusement—and how two people can make a genuine connection without ever having to fall under the checkbox for normalcy.
What starts out as your typical first date—complete with awkward pauses, cute glances across the table, and a few flirty overtures—gradually turns into one unconventional date between two rather, well, eccentric individuals. The audience is challenged to decide where in the "eccentric" spectrum does each of our daters fall under: adorably quirky or certifiably nuts? It's perhaps the play's most interesting aspect, as we gradually get personality clues about our two characters, and wonder if these crazy kids can make a go of it together, despite how screwed up they really are to everyone else.
The play begins (and stays) inside an average dimly-lit New York City bar—cheekily named Last Chance, of course—where the walls are lined with patron-scribbled graffiti and there are vinyl couches in the periphery for group mingling. We meet Elliot (Casey Long) and Susan (Jessie Withers), having post-movie drinks at the hotspot, their date already in progress. At first, their chat feels very much like an expected exchange between a couple of fairly educated people still trying to get to know each other, treading lightly but not too lightly. But as the night (and, in turn, the play) progresses, we learn just how much emotional and ideological damage each carries with them, and how alarming their personality traits are—traits that somehow boost their burgeoning attraction for one another.
And as one would expect in such an exaggeratedly heightened dark comedy, it's hard to deny how much the two are actually quite perfect for each other—questionable behavior and all. Despite mutually spending a lot of time explaining themselves, the more each has a moment of doubt and tries to resist the palpable connection they are conjuring between them (more so for the ultra-neurotic, prone-to-shred-napkins Susan), the more their potentially great relationship is doomed to fail. You have to ask, then... Does this count as a date from hell if both participants are willingly (albeit cautiously) into it?
Under the direction of Marya Mazor, NERVE lets its freak flag to fly one layer at a time, in one amusingly-delivered anecdote after another. The show's true strength lies in its intriguing reveals that start early. I won't dare spill too many details about some of the amusing doozies that come up during their revelatory dating tug-of-war, but I will divulge that when Susan brandishes an alarmingly large weapon from her purse nonchalantly early in the play, you know that you're in for a really strange first date scenario. It's this anticipation for what comes next that makes NERVE more exciting than the sum of its parts.
There are a lot of amusing exchanges launched back-and-forth in this verbose play, and the production's pair of actors really go full throttle in their commitment to their outlandish characters. Long and Withers truly encapsulate a genuine chemistry in their electric scenes together. It's certainly easy to want to root for them to keep dating (and eventually realize they're made for each other), even if we leave the play not quite attached to either character individually. The show's only glaringly odd attributes are the modern interpretive dance breaks that Susan occasionally retreats to—a way to manifest the anxiety she's struggles with in her mind. Well-meaning as it may be, it's a bit too much of a stretch to include in the trajectory of a dark comedy, bordering on slightly amusing for the wrong reasons, abruptly pulling the audience from the action at hand.
However, the technical machinations that surround the play—the authentic-looking set, the moody lighting, the industrial soundtrack, and even the surprise puppetry and paper napkin explosions—add to what amounts to be a commendable work-in-progress. At a tightly compact 75 minutes, the play thankfully zips along, but still feels like there's more yet to be told. Perhaps this explains why the production includes a post-play after-show/audience wine-and-chat interactive session as a way to extend the show's short running time and to, dare I say, signal that the play needed a bit more padding?
While not the most groundbreaking play out there, NERVE certainly takes an admirable stab at being an atypical portrait of a romance-in-the-making between two damaged, extremely flawed characters, making it more interesting than your average date night comedy. Luckily, in a world where love can come from the strangest of beginnings, NERVE gives a tiny bit of hope to anyone still waiting for that one person—normal or not—they're destined to love.
Photo of Jessie Withers & Casey Long by Doug Catiller for The Chance Theater/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's production of NERVE continues through February 27. Shows run 8pm Thursdays and Fridays; 3pm and 8pm Saturdays; 2pm Sundays; special Feb.27 show at 7pm.
Tickets are priced from $22 to $35 with a running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes (no intermission). The Chance Theater is located at 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com.