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Nerve Damage 

World premiere of You Got Nerve! goes totally numb at Karamu

It's always good news when an original play by a local writer hits the stage. New work is, after all, the lifeblood of theater. And that's why it's sad to have to report when new local efforts go seriously awry. Such is the case with You Got Nerve!, the world-premiere showing at Karamu of a piece written by the theater's playwright-in-residence, Michael Oatman.

This attempt at creating a comedy with music fails at so many levels—from the script to directing to acting—that the mind reels.

This is not to say there are no glimmers of hope. Oatman's story, inspired by the teen movie You Got Served, is populated with potentially interesting characters. Trouble is, they never do anything that is at all stimulating, enlightening, or amusing. And that makes for a dreary two and a half hours.

The story revolves around two teenagers, Claire and Gideon, who meet street-cute in a tough Cleveland hood. After Gideon retrieves Claire's iPod from a mugger, Claire and her friends from an arts school encounter a thuggish gang. An extended exercise in fighting, running, and falling across the stage commences before the kids pile through the doorway of an unidentified building and disappear. This is not the first time that quizzical things happen.

It's not till afterwards that we learn the whole bunch of them ended up trashing a senior citizens' home. Anyhow, the kids are arrested and sentenced to community service: fixing up the retirement home. This is when Claire and Gideon's relationship develops, and where Claire meets an oldster named Willie Brown who pines for his dead wife, also named Claire.

The playwright has multiple themes at work here, including inter-generational bonding over classic blues music that happens between old-time guitarist Willie and budding singer Claire. Unfortunately, Oatman's words are so often mundane and colorless that there is no spark to this or any other storyline. Add on the fact that almost everyone in the play has a really sucky attitude, from the teens to the seniors. Without anyone to root for, it's hard to care what happens to the whole lot.

Terrence Spivey is co-director (along with Oatman), and is a man who has staged numerous riveting productions in recent years. However in this instance, he and Oatman go wildly off the directorial tracks—but slowly. Every scene proceeds at such a leaden pace, with huge gaps between individual lines, that one begins believing a group hallucination is occurring where time really is standing still. It doesn't help that the performances range from egregiously over-acted to amateurish. Or that there is a gray and bland set with a staircase that actors navigate, slowly -- and repeatedly.

Among the performers, Caleb Parrot as a flamingly gay theatrical teen named Van Leer leans too heavily on swishy clichés, but he does show evidence of some stage presence. And as old Willie, young Antuane Rogers ages-up and hobbles believably. But because he can't play even a simple lick on the guitar Willie lovingly fondles, the character's musical chops are seriously suspect. As Claire, Chelsea Anderson sings nicely but never develops any chemistry with J. Vaughn Briscoe who plays Gideon. Kenny Parker plays a supposedly comical security guard and is so loaded down with cheesy gimmicks (an eye patch, a limp, a bad wig, speaking through a bull horn) that his actual acting talent never breaks through.

Everything culminates in a dance contest, like in the movie that inspired the play, but it's another letdown. The dance segment is not only too short, but well short of awesome. If this was a workshop performance, it would be a (very) rough start. But for a ticket-selling production, the only appropriate response is: You got some nerve!

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