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If I tried just to describe moment by moment the dynamic of the two characters’ interaction in Nerve, you might well get the impression that it’s basically an off-off-Broadway equivalent of a date movie, and that the main point is to see which of the two would win out in a contest to see who’s the craziest and most damaged – that the date they’re on in the play is just such a contest, for all intents and purposes, and not much more. But Adam Szymkowicz’s creation aspires to more, and with Scott Ebersold’s intelligent direction and the actors’ engrossing portrayals of their complicated characters, Nerve mostly manages to make the extra step.
The setting is a generic New York bar, where Susan (Susan Louise O’Connor) and Elliot (Travis York) are having a face-to-face after meeting online and emailing back and forth a little. Their nervousness and discomfort are evident from the first, but that seems only natural; it’s only after things have progressed more toward to the point where most couples would be chatting easily (or, in the case of these web dates, realized that the other person isn’t what [s]he seemed online, and so called the night off), but these two are still painfully awkward, unable to stop saying the wrong thing and revealing all the skeletons in their closets. Susan is leery of commitment, not to mention burdened by the self-loathing and accompanying destructive behavior that never fail to puzzle people when they appear in beautiful women. Elliot, meanwhile, is an intense, needy “serial monogamist” who has gotten into trouble for not letting go of former girlfriends after they break up. But where she insists on putting everything on the table up front, his issues only come out by accident, often in the context of his inappropriate, frequently harmful responses to her confessions. Once the first signs of these difficulties come out, you may be tempted to go onstage and yank the two apart, telling them that the only place they should be meeting right now, with their psyches in such a state of potentially combustible disarray, is at a psychologist’s office. Of course most everyone has a skeleton or two, and their impact is naturally compounded in a relationship. But while the initial chemistry between these two appears promising – Elliot quickly decides that it’s love, and Susan is easily convinced by his adoration and the electric kiss they share – the potion thus mixed up is only seemingly benign, and in fact is just waiting for one last catalyst to tip it into a dangerous chain reaction.
But despite the fact that the two are in such clearly precarious states of mind, Nerve is quite funny – or maybe it’s because of that precariousness, and because O’Connor and York are so good at making it come alive. Another thing that sets the play apart from a mere dialogue are the intermittent sequences in which one “goes to the bathroom,” retreating behind a previously opaque scrim that now becomes transparent but is still a divider that allows light to be shed on the two more as individuals via their various cellphone calls as well as some spontaneous bursts of dancing (Susan) and puppetry (Elliot). Perhaps most importantly, for all their quirks, minor and not so minor, Szymkowicz shows how normal the characters are in their responses to each other, in their pleasures and disappointments as they get to know each other, and O’Connor and York embody this well. Throughout the evening, you seesaw back and forth, wondering which of them to trust, which to identify with or feel bad for. Susan usually wins out, both because she is honest up front and because O’Connor’s acting is so vivid and arrestingly real, somewhat more so than York’s, who at times is too obviously acting and saying lines. Nevertheless, together they’re a potent combination and they create great momentum in the plot, not allowing it devolve into mere banter. This might not be a very good date play, at least not a first- or second-date play, because of the suspiciousness it encourages, even as a comedy – but it is, again, astute and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and in the end a neat little demonstration, if you needed one, of how much better live theatre can be than TV or movies when it comes to convincingly recreating human relationships in all their delicious complexity.
14th St. Y // 344 E. 14th St. // Through July 1, Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Mon. 7pm // Tickets via Smarttix