Much of the first half of Eric Alter's Nice Guys Finish... is painfully familiar. A stage divided into two distinct areas (restaurants or bars as appropriate) with two men on one side and two women on the other, each group talking about what the other sex does to drive them crazy. What original ideas or thoughts could possibly come out of this?
Even the situation that sets the show in motion is contrived, as each group waits for a third to join them. The missing man and woman were out on a blind date (ostensibly with each other, of course), so, while they're waiting, the men and the women regale their friends with the horror stories from their own dating experiences. The stories range from simple cases of mixed wires, outright deception, coming on too strong, and so on.
The material is often perceptive and funny, but it seems like it has very little to say or present. At least until the man and the woman return to their prospective groups to talk about their time together. At that point, Nice Guys Finish... becomes sparkling, intelligent, and theatrical in a way it had never even suggested before.
Alter's primary argument is that men and women simply don't know how to communicate with each other, so they tend to send the wrong signals, encourage things they don't really want, and end up with the type of person that isn't right for them. The title is taken from the familiar saying "nice guys finish last," which is adopted in the play by Tommy (Rick Holloway) who gives it as advice to the male half of the blind date, Stevie (Rob Sullivan, also the show's director). The women, meanwhile, have given up all hope of finding someone sincere and thoughtful; the bitter Sherrie (Takemma Morton) even goes so far as to decry the possibility of love altogether. So when Stevie and his date Kimmy (Jennifer Crane) begin to explain the events of their time together, they're facing an uphill battle.
The two end up seated center stage between the warring factions of men and women, a bastion of reality on the battlefield of preconceptions and biases dividing the two. As the scene progresses, however, the discussion between the six people is one of surprising texture; it adopts the simplicity and familiarity of the earlier scenes specifically to turn them on their heads and show the danger that such prejudices, in any area of life, can bring to interaction with others.
It's a cunning tactic on Alter's part, and one that pays off comedically and dramatically - Stevie and Kim's interactions with their friends, who exist both in the present reality and in their subconscious minds, play beautifully. This fluid interchange of ideas and emotions across traditional barriers of time and space is handled in the way only theater truly can, and it grants everything that comes after (and, after careful re-examination, what came before) a surprisingly amiable tone, and a smile-inducing glow.
Holloway grates just a bit as the perpetual dating cynic and Jenn Doerr's performance as the slightly nerdy third woman is a bit too one-note. But Morton's hard-edged character anchors the female side of the argument, with the dubious, questioning nature exhibited by Michael O'Hagan's "Big Lou" on the male side validates Tommy's points slightly better than Holloway does. (With the performances, as with the text itself, contrasts of all sorts are dominating.) Even Jim Dingevan, as an easy-to-irritate waiter and an intrusive guitarist, finds plenty of comedy in his few moments onstage.
Last but not least, Sullivan and Crane make the perfect couple for the show's romantic focal point; her somewhat skeptical eagerness and his ingratiating behavior (even when trying to put up a rock-hard fašade) are exactly what Nice Guys Finish... needs to elevate it from the everyday to the special. It's impossible not to want these two, and others like them, to succeed and flourish together, something that would suggest there's hope for stronger male-female relations after all.
Fourth Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival