The Adventures of Nervous-Boy (A Penny Dreadful)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 9, 2006
At the very beginning of The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, the title character goes to buy a hot dog at a baseball game. Ahead of him in line is a man on a cell phone. His conversation with the hot dog vendor goes something like this:
GUY ON CELL PHONE: (To the person on the phone.) Hold on. (To the SERVER.) Uh…hold on. (To the phone.) Hold on a sec. (To the server.) Hold…hold on. (To the phone.) Uhhhhhh…hold on. (To the server.) Hold on. (Etc. Keeps going like that.)
Rings kinda true, doesn't it? Playwright James Comtois has captured the rhythms of life in urban American circa 2006 quite perfectly here. But the real achievement of The Adventures of Nervous-Boy—which in addition to being beautifully written is one of the best directed and best produced indie theatre shows I've seen this year—is the way Comtois has his finger so precisely on the pulse of a disaffected generation. Technology and a social order that economist Jared Bernstein has dubbed "YOYOism" ("you're on your own") have brought an anomie and alienation that's probably unparalleled in recent decades. Comtois and his play's eponymous (anti-?)hero nail the mood and the immobility. This is very much a play of the current historical moment.
It's also very funny, in a scary way, which is exactly what Comtois and his collaborators are after: Comtois's program note says Nervous-Boy is his first attempt at a horror show. There are monsters under Nervous-Boy's bed; or, more literally, all around him, in a world that's familiar and reassuringly the same and apparently under some kind of control but nevertheless not exactly safe. His best friend is Asmodeus, a demonic fellow with horns on his head and skin burnt crispy red from, apparently, having lived in Hell for quite a while. An (unseen) bartender has Godzilla-like paws. And people are dying/being killed all around Nervous-Boy (not that he always notices), only to be swept away by Grim Reaper-ish figures in black cloaks with hollow death-mask faces.
And, oh yes, it's funny: I'm not sure I'm making it sound that way, but trust me, it is: bleakly, bitterly funny. Nervous-Boy goes out on a date with Emily, an actress he could possibly be in love with but who also clearly annoys the heck out of him; their (very one-sided) conversation begins like this:
EMILY. OMIGOD HELLO! IT'S GREAT TO SEE YOU!
NERVOUS-BOY. Hi, Emily.
EMILY. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN IT'S BEEN SO LONG OMIGOD YOU LOOK GREAT!
NERVOUS-BOY. Thanks, you, too.
EMILY. I MEAN I HAVE TO BE MEETING UP WITH THIS ASSHOLE PRODUCER DON'T GET ME WRONG HE REALLY KNOWS WHAT HE'S DOING BUT HE'S JUST ALWAYS (Phone rings.) HOLD ON A SECOND HELLO? (On the phone.) HI, HOW ARE YOU LONG TIME NO HEAR LISTEN THAT SOUNDS GREAT BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I'M KIND OF IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING SO IF YOU COULD CALL ME BACK IN LIKE FIVE MINUTES THAT WOULD BE SUPER WE REALLY NEED TO CATCH UP AND BY THE WAY CONGRATULATIONS I KNOW I KNOW OKAY BYE.
Later in this episodic play, Emily and Nervous-Boy go to a pretentious performance art performance (wackily enacted by Patrick Shearer), and then a party populated by hypocritical yuppies; Comtois keeps the atmosphere edgy and zany, without a trace of irony. Nervous-Boy meets a testosterone-overloaded buddy at a dive with a pool table and a Three Stooges-esque fight breaks out. He picks up his paycheck from one of his clients, an automaton on auto-pilot. Finally, Nervous-Boy decides to unwind and heads over to a strip club—and the end of the play manages to coincide with the end of civilized conduct as we think we understand it.
This is rare, incisive writing, and Comtois is fortunate that his director and frequent collaborator Pete Boisvert is so simpatico with it. The production is smartly staged, with minimal props and set pieces and a relentless, pulsing energy that never lets up and in fact builds as the play moves toward its remarkable climax. Sarah Watson's lighting and Patrick Shearer's sound are invaluable in creating appropriate moods as Nervous-Boy runs its course, never eschewing Boisvert's stark, spare vision. Cartoonish fight choreography by Qui Nguyen compliments the thing perfectly.
The company is excellent. Mac Rogers anchors the play as Nervous-Boy, creating a completely sympathetic leading character whose—what's the right word?—quirks? flaws? failings? deficiencies? all seem real and defensible. Rebecca Comtois delivers a similarly humane take on Emily, who could be despicable in a less nuanced portrayal. Six other actors—Anna Kull, Marc Landers, Ben Trawick-Smith, Tai Verley, Scot Lee Williams, and the aforementioned Shearer—portray the dozens of other characters in the play, with real skill and versatility and commitment. (There's also an unbilled cameo appearance by the author.)
The Adventures of Nervous-Boy is a splendid example of the kind of well-crafted, thoughtful, and thought-provoking work that so often gets done in New York's indie theatres (but too frequently fails to garner sufficient recognition). This is theatre that is entertaining, challenging, compelling, and rewarding; I can't recommend it too highly, especially given the low ticket price (just $15) and the compact running time (a little more than an hour; leaving plenty of time for reflection, conversation, and food or drink to fill out the rest of an evening). And I will certainly be eager to see whatever Comtois and his collaborators at Nosedive Productions come up with next.