Playwright Ken Urban and The Amoralists have done something I hardly thought possible: made me like a play about kids who are into the mope-rock of Morrissey and The Smiths. Directed with efficiency and grace by Benjamin Kamine, Nibbler opens a creaky window onto the year 1992 and the just-blooming lives of five new high school graduates in a dreary New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. Much like life itself at that age, the play has a strong aroma of magic realism that heightens its comedy and drama.
In spite of all their word games, sex play, and diner gabfests, the friends – particularly the guys – have a devil of a time revealing or hearing any inner truths about themselves. or deep feelings at all, without cutting themselves or one another abruptly short with a joke. Similarly, but tongue in cheek, the play gives the old canard “the truth will out” a meta-fictional twist, boosted by scary-funny puppetry and other unexpected effects.
Inspired work from an excellent cast gives Urban’s loving/cruel youths a pulpy multidimensionality. Adam (James Kautz) is reeling from a family tragedy, whose effects on him he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge – though it threatens to trap him in a dead-end grind while his friends go on to more exciting lives. One of the downtown scene’s most intense talents, Kautz here gives a restrained, penetrating performance.
The yin to Adam’s yang is his buddy Tara, a sexually frustrated, Stanford-bound would-be free spirit who in an earlier decade would have been the group’s flower child. Newcomer Rachel Franco’s mesmerizing rainbow of a performance makes Tara the dynamic and moral center of the swirling story.
Meanwhile dark humor attends the relationship between Matt (a sharp Spencer David Milford) and Hayley (Elizabeth Lail, another impressively talented newcomer). Pete (a winning Sean Patrick Monahan) struggles with his sexuality in ways that ring disarmingly true. And Officer Dan (an amusing and touching portrayal by Matthew Lawler) is the tired town made manifest, a man pushing middle age whose dalliance with a much younger woman nets him only a flash of a reprieve from his life’s disappointments. Will a stunted life be Adam’s fate too? His hopes may lie in his powers of imagination, the self-aware script suggests.
Anushman Bhatia’s simple sets and Christina Watanabe’s mood-setting lighting neatly position the friends in the everyday places that will become mythical in their memories – diner, playground, abandoned shed. The drinking, the pot-smoking, the passionate-hesitant coupling, the fights and the camaraderie, the hopes and the fears, all coalesce into a grimly funny portrait of that scary moment of first flight, assessed and conveyed with the wisdom of hindsight and painted with the brush of an artist.
Nibbler is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in Greenwich Village, NYC through March 18. For information and tickets visit The Amoralists online or call 1-866-811-4111.