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St. Louis by Richard Green

Nerve
Echo Theatre Company

Nerve
Charlie Barron and
Colleen Backer

It's clearly time to give John and Marsha a make-over. Fifty years ago, the comedy team of Nichols and May became stars for witty sketches on the relationships of men and women, including a famous black-out where all the emotional ups and downs of a couple were described merely by the repetition of the two characters' names (John! Marsha!, in a dozen different ways apiece). Since then, of course, things have only gotten tougher for amorous couples. But fortunately, Adam Szymkowicz has updated the old formula of these two-person, awkward relationship comedies in his 2007 play Nerve, here with the charming and (nearly) frightful Charlie Barron and the oddly subtle and outrageous Colleen Backer on stage as the "modern couple" du jour.

"But," I hear you saying, "what's so funny about a pathetic stalker and a half-there, promiscuous 'cutter'?" Well, it's all in the performances, which are excellent. Nerve is only an hour-long show, which, by modern cliché, cheap-shot critical standards, makes it either a "very long SNL skit" (as everyone seems to say about every one-act comedy these days) or, I suppose, if you want to approach it from the other direction, it could also be a very short War and Peace. But Szymkowicz's writing is so highly detailed, and Eric Little's direction so vivid, that both characters on stage have wheels-within-wheels in their fast-talking performances and "rich inner-lives," as Elliot (the young man) explains, after a terrible fight with a Muppet.

In the play, Ms. Backer presents her Susan as an irresistible maze, elusive and evasive in a million different ways; and Mr. Barron is like a litter of bloodhound puppies, ready to search out her most hidden recesses, and mark his new territory (okay, I'm exaggerating: he doesn't literally mark his territory). But there is lots of beer, and there are many trips to the bathroom, which allow for regular soliloquies and other business: Ms. Backer dances out her demons in the bar, and both of them make or receive furtive calls to (or from) their current or ex-lovers, while tonight's date is off-stage. Those bathroom breaks come in handy: revealing private complications we don't usually learn about on a first date. And, since each character has a bladder the size of a peanut, we manage to get a lot more of these private details with greater and greater frequency, as more and more beer goes down.

Playwright Szymkowicz keeps the impossible relationship alive with wild, honest disagreement and funny, funny misunderstandings all the way through. I completely understand that the fact that it's all crammed into one single hour might initially make it seem like a gyp to the ticket-buying public. But the sheer work-load and any and all outside distractions being utterly removed in favor of clever, fast-talking back-and-forth, makes an indelible comic impression, no matter the length.

Nerve, through July 25, 2009 at Crestwood Plaza's ArtSpace Theatre, in the former shop space #134, around the corner from the chain Mexican restaurant, by the former Dillard's department store. For information, call (314) 225-4329 or visit them on-line at www.echotheatrecompany.org.

Cast
Susan: Colleen Backer
Elliot: Charlie Barron
Additional voice-over by Natasha Toro

Crew
Director and Set Designer: Eric Little
Choreography: Ellen Isom
Lighting Design: Maureen Hanratty
Sound Design: Kelly Kerr
Stage Manager: Danny Maly
Box Office: Terry Meddows
Sound Board: Marcy Wiegert


Photo: John C. Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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