Also see Richard's review of The Who's Tommy
Some great shows are remarkable for their spectacular staging; others for their astonishing stories. But in some rare shows, the glory is in the sheer amazement we feel from watching splendid, naturalistic actors hurl themselves off a cliff again and again, to be smashed to bits (metaphorically, of course) on the rocks below. Nuts is that third kind of great show. It's what Chekhov wanted for us. It's what Stanislavski wanted for us. And it's what you should expect, every single time you go out to the theatre.
Donna Weinsting, John Contini, Bob Harvey, Rachel Visocan, Steve Callahan,
Lara Buck, Keith Thompson, Alan McClintock and William Roth
The outlines of the story emerge subtly, under the direction of Milt Zoth, in the play by Tom Topor. And by today's standards, Nuts (set in 1979) is just a little bit tame. But with the gleaming, streamlined, brutal honesty of its leading lady (Lara Buck) we are constantly forced to see things through the eyes of the individual, under society's harsh glare, and reminded that the person on trial may not be one who's guilty. I know that sounds like a soft-hearted cliché, but the spare spontaneity of all the actors has a wonderful way of stripping away every bit of phony self-righteousness.
At first I was sincerely, personally alarmedit seemed that always-busy actor/director/critic Steve Callahan was finally having the traditional Actor's Nightmare, waking up in a play he'd never rehearsed. But gradually it fits together, as his bumbling court psychiatrist becomes a lynch-pin, determining the standing of the various parties in the manslaughter case against Claudia Faith Draper (Ms. Buck). Maybe the hardest thing in the world is to really, truly act like a blithering incompetent in spite of decades of excellent experience. All the humiliation comes in service of a higher truth, and handled in a way that establishes Nuts as a genuine courtroom drama, and (in its own way) a first-class whodunit.
The actors playing her parents are utterly astounding. Donna Weinsting, a very popular actress and sometime standup comedian, reveals the extreme anguish of divorce in the mid-1950s (the play is set 25 years later) and how a sense of dread opened the gates to some very bad choices. John Contini, who revels in great roles on stages all over town, seems like a nice guy here, and then a middling actor in his initial testimony, but finishes his big scene spectacularly. No one seems more surprised by the proceedings than the actors themselves, confronting, well, themselves. The parents take the stand in the second act, which becomes like some horrible children's game where precious old Christmas ornaments are thrown down a flight of hard stairs, to see how many fragments of mirror and glitter can explode before anyone gets caught.
In act three, we get the whole upside-down world laid out before us, with stark precision. It's not the most grotesque thing modern theatergoers will have ever heard, but, somehow, Ms. Buck's relentless truth-telling lashes out from the witness stand with blistering effect.
Actors William Roth and Alan McClintock (as the lawyers) underplay beautifully, as does the charming Bob Harvey as the judge. I hope, if their minor awkwardness on opening night was accidental, that they keep it in. (Mr. McClintock had a humorous, but very human belt-malfunction, which he gracefully hid, and there were several line bobbles that also heightened the verisimilitude, believe it or not.) Keith Thompson and Rachel Visocan are perfectly natural in their roles as the New York equivalent of a court deputy and a stenographer.
One minor historical note, to help fix the time and place of the audience: the black box theater uses the adjacent restaurant and bar as a very pleasant lobby and, on opening night, a small crowd of Cardinal fans was loudly enjoying our squirrely ride toward the National League championship series against Milwaukee. I felt bad for the actors (who never seemed to flinch, despite the shouting) and I've never observed this problem at the Gaslight Theatre before. But, who knows, it could conceivably happen again next weekend, depending on the fate of this baseball-crazed town. So, if the Cards stay alive past mid-October, it's a win for St. Louis, and the actors will be even more hardened to the rabble of (what the audience might interpret to be) the disembodied voices of schizophrenia, from somewhere "off stage." If the Cards don't last into the weekend, it's a win for a Gaslight show that's already on top.
Through October 23, 2011, at 358 North Boyle, just east (and then north) of the New Cathedral. For ticket information call 1 (800) 982-2787 or visit them on-line at www.stlas.org. Kudos, also, to set designer Cristie Johnson, for her outstanding courtroom.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association