What do you say when you suspect your co-worker is a serial killer? In Sam Marks's dark comedy Nelson, a talent agent named Joe (Alexander Alioto) tries to make small talk with his suspiciously twitchy co-worker Nelson (Frank Harts), asking him, "So, haven't you ever wanted to take a hammer and bury it deep into someone's brain?" Nelson, however, is offended at the insinuation, and Joe's protests that he is working with a psychopath are ultimately dismissed by his superiors. Nelson has an endearing baby face and large eyes that drip with vulnerability. But unbeknownst to anyone but Joe, he also has a briefcase full of snuff movies that he was commissioned to film while his friend Charlie (Samuel Ray Gates) narrated.
Watching Nelson is similar to seeing three out-of-control cars moments away from a head-on collision. You know there is going to be damage and you know things are going to get messy, but what you don't know is just how messy they are going to get. Nelson is a very tense, edge-of-your-seat story wrapped up in a mystery that you can't wait to be solved.
Every time Nelson opens his closet door, a bright light shines out, and he talks enthusiastically into it. Who or what he is talking to is revealed later, though we know it can't be good if it is locked in a closet. Still, Harts plays Nelson with a deep insecurity and desperate neediness that allow audiences to at least feel sorry for him, even if they can't trust him.
There are no good guys in this story, no protagonists, and no common man. These are not characters you want to find yourself identifying with. Alioto plays Joe with such a cool, snakelike quality that he practically slithers. He laughs at others' misfortunes and delights in making his jittery colleague squirm. But it is Charlie who comes off as the scariest. Gates displays a frightening coldness in Charlie's eyes, putting a wall between himself and humanity, a wall that we sense he is ready to hide behind when something unpleasant has to be done.
The play's most powerful scenes are the ones that take place around the climax, when we can feel the tension onstage building to the point of eruption. Nelson goes too far in his obsession with a beautiful movie star named Laura (Meagan Prahl, who's seen on Nelson's posters and heard through prerecorded scenes). And Charlie realizes that Joe must have found the snuff tapes he and Nelson made, which means Joe knows about their involvement in them and can go to the police.
The play also explores the lure of celebrity and the lengths some people will go just to capture a piece of it. Nelson is eager as a puppy for the privilege of delivering an envelope to Laura's house, and is in ecstasy when she sends him a chocolate basket thanking him for his help with a screen test. These actions lead him to believe that what he sees on the screen is not only real but accessible to him. Charlie, on the other hand, sought celebrity for himself by agreeing to be an onscreen narrator for the snuff films because he wanted people to recognize him.
Nelson's greatest strength is the ability to weave a story that is entirely unpredictable, one that we can't quite wrap our minds around as it's unfolding but that we know is headed somewhere big. The characters are secretive enough to make it entirely plausible that any of them could be on the verge of harming another. The possibility of death is felt in every scene.
Because of the play's subject matter, it is important to note that Nelson contains no disturbingly gory images or actual shots of snuff footage. Marks wisely trusts his audiences to use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. It's an effective method of storytelling for this particular play, because your own thoughts about what is in Nelson's closet and on Charlie's videos are enough to send chills up your spine.