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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 28, 2017

James Kautz, Elizabeth Lail, Spencer Davis Milford,
Sean Patrick Monahan, and Rachel Franco
Photo by Russ Rowland

It's a bumpy carnival ride, that strange time between adolescence and young adulthood. Some who are undergoing the journey are helped along the way by supportive parents and the transformative experience of leaving home for college. But those who stay or are left behind may have a rougher go of it, as evidenced in The Amoralists production of Ken Urban's freewheeling memory/fantasy play Nibbler at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The play unfolds in the recollections and imagination of Adam (James Kautz), one of the left-behinds. Adam has been struggling for years with a hum of depression that has kept him anchored close to where he grew up in the New Jersey suburbs. As the play opens, we find him in the bedroom of his old home, rummaging through a box of paraphernalia from his teenage life. The year is 2004, and Adam is 30 years old. Before you can say "A Christmas Carol," a "ghost" from the past in the form of his old friend Tara (Rachel Franco) suddenly appears and whisks him back a dozen years to the old diner and his pals from high school. Suddenly everyone is 18 again, and the conversation is as free-flowing and random and trivial and important as any of us can remember it from back in the day. We don't need to understand the specifics in order to recognize the experience.

Over the course of the play, we find out quite a bit about Tara and their friends Matt (Spencer Davis Milford), Hayley (Elizabeth Lail), and Pete (Sean Patrick Monahan), as they gather at the diner or a nearby playground, clinging to this special moment in time while smoking pot, drinking beer, and gingerly considering their futures. But even though Nibbler is Adam's story to tell, he himself remains an outsider, more comfortable reminiscing about his friends than he is of revealing very much about himself. While we do eventually learn about some of the specific events to which he attributes his deeply-felt angst (he speaks more than once about suicidal thoughts), they seem less like the keys to freeing him up than justifications for his failure to launch.

As long as the play follows this particular pathway, it paints a more-or-less realistic portrait of Adam's struggles and of his efforts to use his stirred-up memories to come to some sort of epiphany about his life. But the playwright sidetracks us with two other plot lines, either of which might be better suited to a play of its own. In one, the teenagers are stalked by a creature from space, who nibbles on them (all but Adam, as it turns out) in a way that gives them wildly satisfying orgasms, while triggering a fast-forward in their sprint toward adulthood. As a result of their experience, for example, Matt and Hayley instantly turn into the J. Crew-wearing conservative Republicans they would have eventually become anyway. Yet another element introduces an outsider in the form of an older man, Officer Dan (Matthew Lawler), a model of arrested development who starts to hang out with the group, even taking up an affair with Tara. Also sprinkled into the mix is a song written by the playwright and some nudity and sexual situations. All and all, it's quite a mash-up.

The performances under Benjamin Kamine's direction are well-delineated (James Kautz is especially effective as the unhappy Adam), but the play itself is too much of a jumbled skein of conflicting plots. Keep hold of the central strand, and you've got an interesting take on a coming-of-age story. Hang on to the "Officer Dan" thread, and you've got a potentially creepy tale about a stalker. Follow the space creature (the "Nibbler" of the title, represented through Stefano Brancato's excellent puppet design), and you've got the makings of a comic satire. The playwright says that this 90-minute version of the play began as a shorter one-act, a post 9/11 rumination on an earlier time when he felt more hopeful. The current production suggests that possibly the one-act was complete in itself. As it stands, Nibbler fails to coalesce into a unified whole. Instead, it hops about, as Tara puts it, like "imaginary conversations with people no longer in your life."

Through March 18
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place between Perry and West 11th Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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