First Date

With Nerve, playwright Adam Szymkowicz ventures into the minefield that is online dating and emerges with a wickedly entertaining and darkly comic romance. Cyber-dating may be rife with tales of nightmarish encounters with neurotics and sociopaths, Szymkowicz seems to say, but don't sociopaths deserve love, too? Anyone who sees Nerve will be inclined to say yes. Presented by Packawallop Productions and the Hypothetical Theater Company, the play invites its audience to look in on the first date of Susan (Susan Louise O'Connor) and Elliot (Travis York), a soon-to-be couple whose interaction so far has been limited to a series of e-mails. The two drink round after round of beer as they become accustomed to each other's real-life personas, divulge personality quirks, and navigate toward their first kiss and, eventually, couple-hood.

The show's moments of first-date awkwardness will be eerily familiar to anyone who's ever wondered what the person who just bought the last round of drinks could possibly be hiding. "What are your quirks?" Susan inquires, a seemingly innocent icebreaker. But Elliot, with more than just an oddity to hide, is on to her. He retorts, "That's the seemingly harmless way of asking, 'What's wrong with you?' " Elliot, of course, is right, as the ensuing conversation vacillates between witty banter and the disclosure of the singles' darkest, best-left-as-a-surprise character traits.

Director Scott Ebersold demonstrates an intimate knowledge of 21st-century mating rituals as he deftly orchestrates the subtle dance of two people alternating between the impulse to protect themselves and the desire to get to know (and touch) each other. O'Connor and York balance their characters tantalizingly on that fine line between lovably quirky and flat-out scary.

Szymkowicz demonstrates a keen ear for the ways in which dating jitters can translate outright compliments into something accidentally backhanded. "You're clever and smart and good," Elliot begins with the best of intentions, and receives a beaming smile for his efforts. But, to Susan's consternation, he continues, "I'm surprised you're even human!"

Susan forgives the questionable wording, but has Elliot learned his lesson? Not exactly. Much of the character's charm lies in his inability to recognize when he is ahead and should therefore quit talking. York's delivery ensures that Elliot's alternating overeager compliments and thoughtless phrasing are always balanced with a boyish sincerity that's impossible for Susan (or the audience) to begrudge. This unfortunate habit yields a slew of frustrating first-date moments for Susan, but a great deal of twisted amusement for onlookers.

Susan, for her part, isn't an ideal catch, however. O'Connor perfectly captures a combination of capriciousness, vulnerability, and world-weariness that transforms the normally introverted Elliot's unsubtle ardor into something understandable. Delightfully girlish in a flouncy skirt ensemble assembled by costume designer Jessica Watters, O'Connor also slips easily into the naughtier role of temptress. Sure, it's alarming that Susan made room for a knife in her tiny handbag, but how could her date not be seduced when O'Connor says, "A good kiss can't help but hurt you"?

In fact, if there is anything to criticize in this production, it's that the director and cast did not take fuller advantage of the actors' range later in the show. York radiates Elliot's genuineness and foot-in-mouth charm, but he also ably channels an appropriately dominating sexual energy when called upon. O'Connor embodies the wounded coquette, but her passion is equally tangible. As the play draws to its climax, exposing the characters' more disturbing aspects and possibly pushing this couple toward a premature breakup, the production too quickly returns to safe emotional territory without carrying its audience to the furthest boundary of what this dark comedy could achieve. Elliot and Susan are obviously two very passionate people, magnetically drawn to each other. Delving deeper into their darker energies and sexual chemistry in these crucial moments could only serve to underscore all that is irresistible about them and the production itself.

Set designer Nicholas Vaughan distills a typical city bar down to its bare minimum—two high stools, a small table, and a neon sign, but the design's apparent simplicity is deceptive. As the play unfolds, previously unobtrusive stage nooks—playfully illuminated by lighting designer Sarah Jakubasz—are revealed, along with Elliot's and Susan's inner lives. Sound designer Brian Hallas provides a wittily appropriate pop/rock soundtrack familiar to any barfly, peppered with dance-friendly tracks that appeal to Susan's inner diva. Choreography is provided with no small measure of tongue-in-cheek humor by Wendy Seyb.

To "ask somebody to love you takes a lot of nerve," the show's playbill quotes from a Paul Simon song. Elliot and Susan have nerve aplenty. For providing a laughter-filled evening that can make anyone feel better about his or her own dating nightmares, these lovable sociopaths deserve love.

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