“Ask somebody to love you. Takes a lot of nerve. Ask somebody to love you. You got a lot of nerve.”
–Paul Simon

Can a couple of 20somethings on a blind date from hell find happiness ever after? That’s the question asked by playwright Adam Szymkowicz in Nerve, his disturbing but oh-so-romantic comedy now getting its West Coast Premiere at The Chance Theater.

Elliot (Casey Long) is the first to give signs that all may not be quite right up there when he remarks to Susan (Jessie Withers) how entirely normal it is for them to be nervous, “especially before we’ve even had a first kiss.” Mark you, this is only the fourth thing out of Elliot’s mouth following the obligatory hellos at a neighborhood bar, and while the purpose of any blind date may indeed be that first kiss and beyond, most daters would probably wait at least until the first beer has been imbibed to bring it up. Then there’s Susan, who opines that “a good kiss is like a knife,” and when Elliot responds with a casual, “sort of makes me wish I had a knife,” pulls one big mother of a knife from her purse, one she “just happens” to have with her.

This is just the first in a series of secrets Elliot and Susan reveal about themselves, like skins pulled from a pair of very big onions, secrets which repel yet at the same time attract the mismatched/perfectly matched couple to each other.

Frequent trips to the men’s and ladies’ rooms allow both Elliot and Susan time to themselves, moments which reveal even more disturbing character traits, Elliot’s obsessive possessiveness (which he expresses with a puppet he’s made of one of his ex-girlfriends) and Susan’s obsessive compulsiveness (which she reveals through the countless cocktail napkins she tears to shreds.) Then there are all the dances Susan choreographs inside her head and which we see her perform inside her mind’s eye, dances which imply a not particularly stable individual.

Were either Elliot or Susan not so screwed up, the more normal of the two would quickly beat a fast retreat, and in fact each of them seems alternately on the verge of doing just so. Still, in the world the very talented Szymkowicz has created for these would-be lovers, two entirely messed up individuals may make for an absolutely right-for-each-other couple—that is if they can both stick around long enough to make it happen.

Nerve is that rare play, one that can appeal equally to those who enjoy taking a walk on the wild side when they go to the theater, and those whose eyes tear up when they recall a rain-soaked Audrey Hepburn embracing George Peppard and that lost-and-found Cat in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

If casting the right leads is essential in any romcom, it’s even more critical in a two-character one-act with characters as problematic as Elliot and Susan, and in Long and Withers, The Chance has hit the jackpot. Long is the Chance’s answer to Philip Seymour Hoffman, and though he mostly gets Hoffmanesque character roles, the company member has deft comedy timing and a likability factor that goes a long way towards making us root for Elliot even as we recoil from some of the things he’s done. Withers, seen most recently as one of the Valley Girl stepsisters in the Calvin Remsberg-directed Into The Woods, recalls the movies’ Ellen Page in her pitch-perfect performance as the quirky, endearing, wounded soul that is Susan.

Director Marya Mazor proves once again, as she did in The Chance’s recent production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, that she is not afraid to explore our darker natures, keeping performances grounded in reality even as characters reveal their unsettling secrets.

Sara Ryung Clement has designed yet another of The Chance’s gorgeous sets, though perhaps one a tad too grand for Szymkowicz’s intimate vision. It’s a bit unrealistic that Elliot and Susan should have the run of the entire bar at their disposal, so this is one case where smaller and simpler would have been better. Jeff Brewer’s terrific lighting design signals when we are in reality and when we’re inside Susan’s head—moments when Susan executes choreographer Kelly Todd’s mood-&mind-revealing choreography. Long’s excellent sound design underscores Elliot and Susan’s date with the low hum of jukebox tunes. Bruce Goodrich gets thumbs up too for his costume and puppet design. Bryan Williams is stage manager and assistant sound designer, and Kalen Cobb assistant lighting designer. The first three dance songs were composed by Max Avery Lichtenstein.

Nerve is followed by an ill-advised “2nd Story” potpourri of “free wine, hot music, and fresh stories.” Even at a brief seventy minutes, Nerve is too fine a piece of writing to be followed by what might work as a late-night show, but ends up detracting from the impact that Szymkowicz’s story deserves and the post-performance discussions that Nerve is sure to inspire.

With a play and production as fine as Nerve at the Chance, seventy minutes is well worth the price of admission. Theatergoers in search of something different are advised to savor the rich, rewarding main course that is Nerve and skip the superfluous dessert.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
–Steven Stanley
February 5, 2011
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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