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Road to Nirvana

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The characters in Road to Nirvana, the Arthur Kopit play being presented by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble at the Pelican Studio Theatre, are faced with questions about who they are, what they want, and what they're willing to do to get it. The production (which has been directed by Donovan Johnson) may be a bit uneven, but Kopit's script pulls no punches in suggesting answers to these questions.

In the cutthroat world of Hollywood that Kopit has created for the play, there is no price too high to pay and no possession too sacred to sacrifice in order to achieve lasting success or notoriety. To what extreme will anyone be willing to go in order to make a million dollars, make a mark on the world, or even find personal fulfillment? When faced with circumstances that test our beliefs about the answers to these questions, will we hold up under pressure?

For Jerry (played by Philip Emeott), his beliefs may as well be elastic. When called to join old friend and associate Al (Brad Fryman) and his girlfriend Lou (Summer Shirey) for lunch, he has no idea he'll be asked to fulfill a series of increasingly bizarre requests in order to collaborate on a film about the life of eccentric rock star Nirvana (Adria Woomer). Al and Lou have already given their souls (and possibly more) for what they consider to be a sure thing; most of the play is concerned with whether they'll convince Jerry to do the same.

Though much of Kopit's writing is cynical - his attitudes toward Hollywood power players comes across loud and clear - it's also sharp and funny. His characters speak in clipped sentences and always hold something back, often suggesting that they know what each other is saying without needing to use every word to express it. From Jerry's initial reluctance to Al's oily salesmanship and Nirvana's innate weirdness, all the characters are well defined by they use and the words they don't.

Of the performers, only Woomer successfully taps into Nirvana's inner strangeness; she has created a memorable portrayal of a woman sharp enough to find great success, but with little concept of the difference between right and wrong. Woomer demonstrates this conflict, so central to the play, better than Emeott does, whose transformations from innocent to power player happen far too quickly. Shirey's character is the least defined of those in the show, so she has a fair amount of difficulty finding consistency in her performance of Lou. While Fryman seldom conveys the charisma necessary to push Jerry over the edge, Evan Zes makes the most of his few lines as Al's servant Ramon, getting some of the best laughs in the show.

Johnson has staged the show well, but his direction lacks focus, diluting some of the story's necessary tension. As a result, Road to Nirvana never feels particularly tight; the comedy works, but the underlying tragic nature of the story - which gains in importance as the play progresses - only occasionally comes through. Ian Pfister's set is simple and representational, but makes quite a remarkable transformation from Al's house to Nirvana's; that scene change is reason enough to remain in the theater during intermission.

That's not to say that you're likely to find the rest of Road to Nirvana uninteresting. There's a surprising amount of humor and depth to be found here. If Johnson and his actors occasionally have difficulty bringing it out to its fullest extent, Kopit's writing is very incisive and does a credible job on its own. If not quite theatre Nirvana itself, it's an often compelling way to spend an evening.

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Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Road to Nirvana
Through February 15
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Pelican Studio Theatre, 750 8th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, Room 601
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101