Try to recall the most disastrous blind date you’ve ever had, then multiply that by ten, and you’ll have some idea of just how bad Elliot and Susan’s blind date is in Adam Szymkowicz’s quirky, romantic, highly original Nerve, now getting its Los Angeles premiere under the inspired direction of Michael Matthews.

Elliot (Adam Silver) is the first to give off warning signs when he tells Susan (Anna Rubley) that he finds it entirely normal for them both to be nervous “before we’ve even had a first kiss,” hardly what you’d expect a sane individual to say only seconds into a first date.  When Susan later declares that “a good kiss is like a knife” and Elliot responds with a casual, “sort of makes me wish I had a knife,” his date then 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 (yet somehow 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 acts out with a marionette he’s made of one of his ex-girlfriends) and Susan’s obsessive compulsiveness (which she reveals via the countless cocktail napkins she tears to shreds.) Then there are all the dances Susan choreographs inside her head (and which we get to see performed by Rubley and Silver), dances which imply a not particularly stable individual.

Were either Elliot or Susan not so screwed up, the more “normal” of the two would surely 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 just 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 theatrical wild side, 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.

Still, Szymkowicz’s unconventional romcom could easily veer too far into sitcom territory without just the right director and cast to bring it to authentic life. Fortunately, the masterful Matthews and a sensational young pair of actors keep Nerve always grounded in reality, even as Elliot and Susan’s neuroses and fantasies spin ever more out of orbit.

As outstanding as Silver was in A Noise Within’s 2010 revival of Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing, his finely understated work in the 1930s classic did not prepare me for the quicksilver brilliance of his star turn as Elliot. There’s not a studied moment in Silver’s wholly spontaneous performance, an ever-changing bundle of quirks and kinks that the Chicago native keeps grounded in reality, even as Silver’s innate likeability keeps the audience, like Susan, from running towards the nearest exit.

Recent USC grad Rubley makes an auspicious professional debut in Nerve, adding her name to the many Trojan talents reviewed previously on these pages. At first glance, her Susan may seem too darned pretty to have a care in the world, the 20something’s cover girl looks making it hardly a wonder that Elliot falls fast and hard. Still, the more we get to know Susan, the more we realize that this blonde beauty’s internal scars run deep, and the more we see of Rubley’s gifts as an actress, the more we realize that her performance proves the perfect match for her costar’s flashier work.

Scenic designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford has created a terrifically dark-and-dingy corner bar for Elliot and Susan’s first date, one which Sara Nishida lights with imagination and flair. Cricket S. Myers’ excellent sound design features a subtle juke box underscoring whose volume gets upped in those fantasy dance sequences, which Laura Harrison has choreographed exactly as we imagine Susan would in her mind. Thumbs up too to Lynn Bathke’s puppet design (and for the way Matthews stages its entrance). Christopher Johnson is stage manager. Jocelyn James is assistant director.

Elliot and Susan’s post first date future may be open to debate, this reviewer’s outlook ending up somewhat more optimistic than his guests’. Less likely to inspire contention is what an absolute gem of a production this L.A. premiere proves to be. Szymkowicz + Matthews + Silver & Rubley add up to something quite special indeed.

El Centro Theatre, Chaplin Stage, 804 N. El Centro Ave, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 12, 2012
Photos: Nancy Lam

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