Nibbler is an odd beast. By that I mean the play and the (we can surmise) titular character. The latter is a gangly green guy with a habit of popping up when people are at their most vulnerable, in flagrante delicto or enjoying some solo stimulation. (There are quite a few adult situations in this 90-minute play, not to mention an abundance of male nudity and some downright saucy—if sometimes hilariously purple—language. So ends the parental advisory.) The green beast shows up and promptly wreaks havoc on the group of recent high school graduates, bringing them forced enlightenment compliments of its mind-altering sexual predation. After encountering the creature, the quintet is changed irrevocably. It’s all very American Graffiti. But, you know, with an alien.
Matthew Lawler as Officer Dan, Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler was mostly written in in 2004, though almost all of the action takes place in the New Jersey pine barrens in 1992. The performers go above and beyond, considering the abundant nudity, the very mature scenes and the incredibly compromising positions with some creatively chosen props. And nearly all of them accompany moments of pained desperation, the symptoms of deep emotional damage, which the actors perform with admirable fervor. If you are the type for whom the human form brings blushes and giggles, this is not the play for you. For everyone else, it will likely touch some feelings and memories close to home—if not of yourself than probably of someone you knew when you were that age.
James Kautz is Adam, the de facto narrator. The story unwraps itself in flashback as he sorts through a box of mementos from the summer after high school graduation. His friends way back when are an eclectic mix: Elizabeth Lail is the blonde and secretly super-sexual Hayley, Matthew Lawler is local boy-turned-fuzz Officer Dan, Spencer Davis Milford is Matt, the über-Republican politician’s son, Rachel Franco is anxious overachiever with daddy issues, Tara, and Sean Patrick Monahan is Pete, the boy who secretly pines for his best friend, Adam.
James Kautz as Adam, Rachel Franco as Tara
A simple telling could be that sex changes things and makes people grow up. The creature, after all, is drawn to people in the throes of sexual excitement, and after this initial encounter those people are forever changed. Another telling could use the alien as symbolic of the college experience, something that’s scary at first but ultimately brings us wisdom and catalyzes change to help us become the people we are ‘meant’ to be. Or maybe it’s just about longing for what has passed, a simpler time before adult responsibilities and difficult choices made it impossible to keep on keeping on. Either way, the characters change in dramatic ways, ways that make them happier in the end because they have become comfortable with themselves, but also sadder for never being able to go back to how things were.
Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt
The whole thing is amusing, even if a little heavy-handed with the sterotypes. The one part that didn’t work, on multiple levels, was the musical number at the end, which does, in fact, sound as if it was written by a teenager trying to be deeper and more philosophical than they really have in them. Problems with mic balance and not entirely on-tune singing added to the effect, as did the brief pauses in between singing when the characters went back to their former selves, joking around in their favorite local diner hangout. It’s the kind of scene that may look good on paper but just doesn’t work in a live performance.
What it does well is point out how the political climate in 1992 had so many parallels to what is happening today. Not quite as extreme, mind, but certainly interesting. Playwright Ken Urban and director Benjamin Kamine have done good work with the set, props, and the 90s grunge feel, both the clothes and the attitude. The attention to detail is also so true to Southern New Jersey in the early-to mid-90s. From the clothes to the music to the diner snacks, it rings true. So visit the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly, then maybe make your way over to MacDougal for some frites with gravy and cheese. Think about who you were, who you are, and enjoy the moment for what it is: the bridge between what was and what will be.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Top: James Kautz as Adam, Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete, Rachel Franco as Tara
Playing at The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place
Through March 18, 2017