Sunday, February 11, 2007

PLAY: "Nelson"

Partial Comfort Productions strikes again with another show about disturbed but colorful urban characters who are thrust at first into comedic situations, and then, as true life sours the illusion, straight into the nightmare of a hopeless existence. Nelson is an enjoyable bit of theater, but on second look, only Nelson's a character: the two supporting roles are devices meant to rile up and provoke him. Still, for set pieces, Joe (Alexander Alioto) and Charlie (Samuel Ray Gates) give our anti-hero, the slovenly, shy, and sad Nelson (Frank Harts) plenty of provocation, and give the audience ninety minutes of entertainment.

The result is a rough plot that lasers in on a somewhat shallow obsession of Nelson's, but those rough edges are sharp, and the office dynamics are as vibrant as they are inexplicable. It's too easy to make Nelson a whipping boy for Joe's frustration with his middling career as a film agent for unsuccessful actors, but that's exactly what playwright Sam Marks does. He never explains it either: he just presents Joe as a needling obstacle, a sadistic and shallow man. It also makes Joe a character without any wants or needs, and though Alioto jumps through the hoops well enough, it's obvious enough that he's just running in place, and when we realize that a character is never going to change, we stop caring about them.

The same goes for the stagnant friend, Charlie, who plays the stereotypical "angry black man." All that we ever learn about him is that he is a great ego and a feeling of entitlement; we also see that he's talented at self-deception, a man who can justify the murder of twelve-year-old boys simply because he's not the one who killed them directly. Gates tries to give the role some range, but his limited scenes, up to and including the climax, rob him of any real development.

As for Nelson, even though we are blatantly manipulated into feeling sorry for him (even as we are creeped out by the "skeleton" in his closet), we sympathize with his loneliness. The nagging question of the show is whether or not Nelson is simply a pathetic man--oppressed at work, taken advantage of by his friends, and abandoned at night--or if he's a killer himself, or worse. Director Kip Fagan has placed both the office and Nelson's living room in the same space, which keeps the scenes rolling from one to the next, with Nelson always torn between the two, and Harts does an admirable job of rolling with those punches. It's as exciting to see him come out of his shell as it is to see him hide within it once more. Take it as a compliment or not, but he really does have "the air of a serial killer."

Nelson doesn't manage to really surprise us, but it does manage to entertain us, and it represents a slice of life on the off-Broadway stage that a lot of companies don't bother to address. I wish that Marks had developed more of a plot so that the show weren't so wrapped up in shallowness, but at the least, his director has managed to make those shallows filled with some exciting rapids.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/10]

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