Surrealism works best onstage when it's introduced immediately (from the time the audience members take their seats) or gradually (as it works its way into the play's structure, slowly becoming more dominant). Because we live in a realistic world, we assume that what we see will be realistic, even going so far as to "suspend our disbelief" and accept a few pieces of furniture and a painted wall as someone's living room. At the Gene Frankel Underground, Nosedive Productions's The Adventures of Nervous-Boy (A Penny Dreadful) starts out as a monologue-and-scenes piece focusing on a twitchy social misfit who feels as if he's cut off from the priorities and anxieties of his fellow New Yorkers. The ambient sounds of subway cars and idle bar chatter fill up the awkward pauses in his conversations. But soon we realize this is not the New York we know. This is a distinctly more evil, more rotten Big Apple, and this clever "comedy-horror play" mixes insightful dialogue about loneliness with a lovely bit of ultraviolence and pitch-black irony.
Nervous-Boy is a freelance art designer whose job and lifestyle allow for minimal human contact. He makes enough money working for clients from home that he doesn't need a roommate, and he unwinds by drinking in bars where other solitary people do the talking for him. Though his personal choices seem to be made with isolation in mind, he occasionally speaks of escaping his general feelings of dread by rejoining the world, until a meeting with someone "in the world" reminds him why he shuns it.
Nervous-Boy goes out to meet his friend Emily, a narcissistic, cellphone-dependent actress who talks loudly about nothing, much to his disgust. Their evening continues when they go to an avant-garde performance piece in Chelsea (which avid theatergoers will sadly recognize and laugh at) and an after-party. The more he interacts with Emily, the more he relaxes and starts connecting to the world. But there are no happy endings in store for him, and his life starts to get stranger, bloodier, and full of devils and zombies.
Playwright James Comtois could have made an interesting but forgettable show about the alienation one can feel in a big city. Instead, he's chosen to heighten these themes by introducing supernatural characters and death in order to wrap the audience in the protagonist's alienation. It's a risk, and it's good that he took it. (If you can't take risks Off-Off Broadway, where can you take them?)
The plot is helped along by Mac Rogers (Nervous-Boy), who is believably antisocial but also strangely magnetic. His intelligence and sincere conviction make him at times admirable, at times pitiable, but always watchable. As Emily, Rebecca Comtois avoids caricature in her portrait of the silly young actress. The ensemble members play a number of characters, and they are adept at being hilarious in one scene and slipping into the background in the next.
Sarah Watson's lighting design employs a subtle redirection of light in order to indicate scene changes; it's a smart way to keep the show going and allows the action to "reset" without plunging the audience into total darkness. The much-in-demand Qui Nguyen of the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company has stepped in to do some fine fight choreography in an elaborate bar brawl. Oh, and a few surprisingly "dressed" characters will have pre-show program readers going back to makeup designer Cat* Johnson's bio once the house lights come up.
In the real world, freelancers who choose to can live like shut-ins, like the protagonist in The Adventures of Nervous-Boy. But in the real world, most of them aren't friends with stoner demons. For those who want to escape into someone else's personal hell, the Gene Frankel Underground provides an entrance.