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Holy Cross Sucks!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How long does it take for intense embarrassment and social awkwardness to dissipate into peals of laughter? Current theatrical wisdom suggests 20 years. In accordance with this, Rob Nash's high-school expiation, Holy Cross Sucks!, ends in 1985, which means he and others roughly his age have had a chance to recover from the pain of adolescence and are now ready to look back on it with the fondness only hindsight grants.

But though that's the most obvious goal of Nash's show, which plays at Ars Nova through October 1, the playwright and sole performer overshoots his target. The show's structure recalls the now-classic teen flicks of the 1980s, focusing on a group of strangers growing into close-knit friends and coping with the absurdities and educational, emotional, and sexual complexities of high school. But the cartoonish, nostalgia-fest script and presentation are more redolent of John Waters than John Hughes.

That's not an issue near the beginning of the show, when Nash introduces his three main characters: fish-out-of-water Johnny, sensitive and artistic Ben, and overweight George. Each is gawky and unsure about their new, unfamiliar environment in Houston's Holy Cross High School, and Nash draws clear distinctions between them in his vocal and physical performance. Through his portrayal of Johnny's confidence, Ben's wishy-washy artistic temperament, and George's insecurities, he presents a group of youngsters that - much like those in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - are on the fast track to bigger and better things.

Nash initially has no problem delivering on this: After the central trio is established (they discover with the help of their enthusiastic and encouraging teacher Mr. Smith that they share a love of writing), other new friends, girlfriends, and family members are folded into the story. None is exactly normal, though none is entirely surprising; there are a couple of interchangeable girls who vamp their way around the school and become intertwined with the boys, a nerdy Dungeons & Dragons lover constantly boasts of his imagined ability to kill anyone at any time, and so on, in ways that give predictability an unexpectedly jagged edge.

But though Nash makes them all peppily colorful individuals, that much pep and color grows wearying when unleavened by heart or narrative originality. Nash's caricatures become considerably less amusing as they must deal with a number of traumatic events - including no fewer than three deaths (one by a disease that's presumably AIDS, another military-related, still a third of more or less natural causes), coming out of the closet, an unplanned pregnancy, and so on - but progress little between the whiny kids that enter Holy Cross and the slightly less whiny young adults that leave it in 1985. And with so much played so broadly for laughs, it's even harder to take the more serious moments, well, seriously. (An attack on a gay character late in the show, for example, has frighteningly little dramatic impact because of the off-hand way it's addressed.)

At least the laughs are first rate: The show's comic highlight is nothing more than Nash saying "hi" half a dozen times in rapid succession, fully switching to a different character for each utterance. But Nash's deconstructions of everything from school plays to first sexual experiences are often downright hilarious; if his inability to completely vanish into any of the people he plays proves an impediment to his attempts to move into darker territory, one can't fault the fervent devotion to detail he displays in developing the community in and around Holy Cross.

As directed by Jeff Calhoun, the show moves with a late-for-class swiftness that helps Nash ratchet up the humor level even further; there are practically no breaks in the action for applause, and only the audience's frequent laughter gives Nash even a temporary respite. Even the show's design (by Wilson Chin) contributes to the evening's breathless feel: Nash performers in front of a three-dimensional backdrop of a classroom, complete with student and teacher desks, that in their disheveled and precarious appearance practically announce that comedy is just waiting to happen.

In Holy Cross Sucks!, it never has to wait long. But for all Nash does to recapture the horrifying and sometimes heartwarming eccentricities of high school, he's still too willing to leave honest sentiment impatiently tapping its foot.

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Holy Cross Sucks!
Through October 1
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Ars Nova Theater, 511 West 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix