There is one time in life when each of us, even the most stable and well-balanced, acts as if we have significant brain damage. And that is on the dreaded First Date. We choose the wrong words, phrases come out tangled, and we can't even exit the same sentences we entered a couple seconds before. Some of this angst is captured in Nerve by Adam Szymkowicz, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron. The amusing flop-sweat nervousness and spontaneous verbal combustion of this unavoidable dating ritual is all there. Unfortunately, the repetitive script is mated to performances that never grow or evolve, leaving the 80-minute play caught in a trap of its own devising.
Elliot and Susan met online and, after attending a Michael Moore film, they are swigging beers at a local Manhattan pub. Now they actually have a chance to talk with each other, and the audience should have an opportunity to bond with the characters in some way.
Trouble is, the playwright is intent on quickly establishing the quirky personalities of his featured duo. In short order, they are talking about kissing, contentious sparks fly (Elliot says, "I like how you're giving me a hard time."), and she pulls a serious knife out of her purse and stabs it into the middle of their wooden table.
By eliminating the banal small talk that usually accompanies the early part of most first dates, Szymkowicz fails to ground his characters in anything resembling a real context. And he continues to double-down on that approach, as Elliot admits he's sometimes obsessed with people and makes puppets, while Susan packs away her knife and mentions she works at a suicide hotline.
When Elliott excuses himself to get more beers or visit the restroom, Susan finds a small corner where she can dance alone to the choreography she creates in her head. Meanwhile, Elliot mostly just perspires and stammers when he isn't professing his love for Susan. Good thing she doesn't see him in a heated discussion with a puppet he made of his last girlfriend.
In short, there are enough dysfunctions between these two to fuel a dozen other plays. Still, somehow, they eventually start making out for reasons (other than simple desperation) that are not clearly evident.
As directed by Sean Derry, Brian Kenneth Armour as Elliot and Kelly Strand as Susan each have moments that generate a chuckle or two. But each displays a similar, twitchy sort of nervousness that never morphs into anything more interesting. Since neither character presents a veneer that can be gradually stripped away, they are left to top each other with more and more outrageous behaviors and revelations. And that eventually becomes exhausting.
To wit, we learn that Susan was a cutter with bulimia and Elliot has explosive jealousy issues as he notes that, "I don't want to go back to jail." Really? If this play had gone on for another 15 minutes, I suspect she would have confessed to organizing the 9-11 attacks and he might have admitted to being the Zodiac killer.
In fact, that might have been an interesting approach, taking the first date schtick to its absurd extreme. But this play appears to take itself too seriously for that.
Many stories are powered by the engine of dysfunction, as we watch misfits try to integrate their passions and desires into normal society and conventional relationships. But you take the fun out of dysfunction when multiple weird behaviors are just tacked onto characters like so many tails on a paper-thin donkey.
That's why this play, even with its occasional forays of clever dialogue, ends up getting on your last Nerve.