POP: Larry on Nerve
What is POP (aka) Playwrights-On-Playwrights?
Who else is POPing Adam Szymkowicz?
First up: playwright Larry Kunofsky writes about Nerve.
Larry's plays include What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends, Social Work (a nightmare), and a cycle of plays riffing on the Old Testament, The Genesis Tapestries.
Nerve has been produced in NYC, St Louis, Miami, Asheville, Philadelphia, and beyond. For more information about Nerve, check out Adam's website. Nerve is published by Dramatists Play Service, and is available here and here.
By Larry Kunofsky
Nerve is a Date Play. The play is about a date – a man and a woman meet online, and the entirety of the play is their first physical test to see if they can play well together. It would also be a pretty good play to take a date to, since, if you’re on a date, this play is deeply relevant to your immediate life-path, and it will definitely give you something to talk about after the show. Although it probably wouldn’t be a great first date play. Nerve is a little too edgy for that. Unless the person you’re planning to be on this first date with is even crazier than you are and you’re both willing to risk the worst experience of your lives for the possibility of a Great Moment. Which is what a first date really is anyway, and so, for that matter, is any encounter we have with somebody else, when our hearts are on the line. And this play really goes there. It’s not the Hollywood version of dating, where everything is quirky in a very containable and nonthreatening way. Nerve is a raw nerve. Nerve has nerve (or chutzpah, or guts, or balls…). Nerve quotes the Paul Simon lyric:
“Ask somebody to love you
Takes a lot of nerve
Ask somebody to love you
You got a lot of nerve.”
Let’s look at the soundness of Nerve, or the playability of it as a play. So even though we all know this – at least on an unconscious level – let’s review what makes a good play have a great effect on us, and apply it to this play:
The main characters (especially a protagonist and an antagonist) want something, and what they want is something BIG, something that matters. Well, it matters to them, and it matters so much to them, that it ultimately matters to us. There is conflict. All this wanting propels everyone through their journeys, but people want different things, or they want the same things differently, and this screws everything up for them. And then these people either get what they want or don’t get what they want or get what they want only to find that they don’t want what they had wanted all along after all, and then we can go home.
All this applies really, really well to Nerve, which takes some very common practices and emotions, and spins them into something with lots of heat and makes it essential. It’s a two-character play, which makes sense, because you usually only go out with one other person at a time on a date, unless you really love complications. Susan and Elliot show up at this bar. They’ve been emailing each other for days before their actual date through an online dating site (it’s never specified which one, since there’s very little product placement, but there is a dating site called Nerve, fyi), they went to a movie together earlier (to give each other something to talk about, i.e., Would You Have Michael Moore’s Children?), and they spend the evening… Dating. They are actively DATING each other. They do the little dance that you do in these situations, and with a vengeance. They each constantly attempt to solve the mystery of the other. Will they go home together? Is there a spark of something beyond the immediate, something that can stay with them after the evening? Can love be found in all of this? Will Susan and Elliot be for each other what we all want to be for someone else when we go out on a date? Or will they only become what we all secretly still fear (even though online dating is no longer a new phenomenon, and we should be too enlightened for this stigma): two desperate losers caught in a tawdry hook-up, or even worse, caught in an aborted hook-up?
The lame attempt at a synopsis above is really just my way of illustrating how seamlessly the play gives us what we need from a play. One could argue that either Susan or Elliot is the protagonist, and that the other is the antagonist, but aren’t we all our own worst enemies when we’re trying to show somebody else how great we are?
So the date becomes the perfect set-up for such a nifty little play. Susan and Elliot are both, alternatively, the protagonist and antagonist, and they both want the same thing, only in different ways. Susan wants Elliot to be her Elliot and Elliot wants Susan to be his Susan. What could be simpler and more messed up? There is attraction, witty banter, even some hurried sex in the bathroom, but there’s also Susan’s ex, off his meds, who keeps leaving needy pleas on her cell phone, and then there’s Elliot’s history of court orders and stalking. Susan and Elliot are both broken people. She cuts herself to feel power over her own life, and he’s been in jail. There’s anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, jealousy, but also love. Real love. And maybe that sounds cheesy, but we are talking about the real deal here.
It’s a first date, and yet, there love is. Somehow, Nerve isn’t just a first date, it’s also the entire trajectory of the relationship Susan and Elliot could have together. This isn’t done in some Modernist way, like how Joyce has Ulysses take place on a June day in the twentieth century, but also has it encapsulate all of Western Civilization. I’m actually really glad it’s not like that. The whole whole-relationship-in-one-date thing happens in a remarkably organic way, the way every moment we share with someone else in real life has the DNA of our future histories together. It’s all in the first kiss. Or the first time somebody breaks down and cries in front of another. Or the first time our cell phone goes off at the worst time. It’s like that. Only more so. There’s an interpretive dance in Nerve, and some puppetry, but the play’s Expressionism isn’t any more overt than its Modernism. It’s just a date, and it’s as simple as that, but also as messed up as that, too. Which is really pretty nifty.
It must have taken Adam Szymkowicz a lot of nerve to write this play. He definitely has a lot of nerve in general, and I know that for a fact. He wrote a comedy. Even a (somewhat-)romantic comedy. It’s not remotely cheesy, but it veers precariously towards sounding off our inner cheesy-alarms. It might even lack any real Social Significance. And it has an embarrassment of simplicities within it. It’s like a song with a great beat that you can dance to. And yet, it’s also really messed up. It’s the kind of messed-up-ed-ness that could yield a catharsis, and could even lead us to a genuine Great Moment. Adam dares to entertain us here, to delight us, but he also really goes there, and we go along with him. You won’t want to recognize yourself in this play, but you will. The dots he connects in this play create something really elegant, but the most elegant parts are the dots Adam intentionally does not connect. It takes two to tango, as they say, but the third party here is us, and what becomes of this date we’ve been on, or privy to, is kind of up to us. The play works because it makes us do some of the work. It utilizes our hearts, and our nerve.