nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 10, 2006
Nerve, a new play by Adam Szymkowicz, charts a first date between Elliot and Susan. They've met over the Internet and now they're meeting in person, for the very first time, at a bar. He's immediately panicky about whether things are going well or not: will they kiss, and if so, will it be a good kiss, one that portends the beautiful and significant relationship he's hoping for?
This in turn makes her more than a little wary, understandably. Let's not worry about the first kiss just yet, she tells him. Let's just relax and talk and find out what we think of each other.
And so Nerve progresses, through the sometimes trivial, sometimes intimate push-and-pull of two (more or less) grown-up people trying to get to know each other. Susan and Elliot reveal, to us and to each other, a fair amount of charm, a good deal of anxiety and uncertainty, and—more and more as the evening progresses—some very particular qualities that we might charitably call quirks but that border on pathology of some kind or other. He's controlling. Strike that: he's been in jail for stalking previous girlfriends. She's insecure. Strike that: she's been bulimic and has been known, from time to time, to cut herself with a knife.
They both swear they've changed, and we want to believe it. They probably want to believe it, of each other; but do they really?
The problem I had with Nerve, ultimately, was that try as I did to pull for these two, I finally didn't feel the spark, the organic but ineffable thing that would make it clear that Susan and Elliot are destined for each other. They're heading headlong into an affair—maybe—but there's a sad desperation underlying this romance. Maybe that's what Szymkowicz intends; I'm not sure. By making his play's two characters so over-the-edge psychologically—by which I mean that most men aren't stalkers and most women aren't self-mutilators—he removes our chance to identify with them; we can root for them, but the amount of baggage they're saddled with makes it tough.
The good news is that Susan and Elliot are played by two of indie theatre's most talented actors. Susan Louise O'Connor, about whom I have raved on many previous occasions, is terrific in this role, showing us the many sides and layers to Susan's personality. She's touching and funny and achingly vulnerable. This piece represents a neat departure for O'Connor, and it only reinforces my appreciation of her enormous talent. As Elliot, Travis York matches her beat for beat; his characterization is just as tenderly complex and he gives this somewhat nerdy guy a hangdog sweetness that almost belies his manipulative nature. (Notice I said "almost"—York's work here is intelligent enough to balance this insecure man's desire to be loved against his more disturbingly off-putting attributes.)
Scott Ebersold's direction is sure-footed and well-paced. There are some choreographed interludes (staged by Wendy Seyb) in which we see Susan trying to work things out in her sub-conscious as conveyed by movement, and there's also a humorous segment in which Elliot interacts (in his imagination) with a puppet representation of a former girlfriend. These sequences are less successful than the naturalistic rest of the play, however.
Mainly, Szymkowicz's increasingly over-the-top script gets in the way of a depiction of a wholly understandable relationship. And is the piece just a bit misogynistic?—I felt empathy for Elliot's neuroses from the playwright, but contempt for Susan's weaknesses. Is that intended?
In any event, as an occasion to witness the bravura acting of O'Connor and York, Nerve has real merit. It's a production that's easy to admire, though not so easy, finally, to like.