We all do it. In a bar or restaurant, even in a theater while waiting for a play to begin, we find ourselves eavesdropping on the people around us. We try to make sense of arbitrary snatches of conversation. Nerve, by Adam Szymkowicz, which is enjoying a sweetly voyeuristic staging at Echo Theatre, allows us to listen in on the tentative mating rituals of Susan (Colleen Backer) and Elliot (Charlie Barron). Nerve is yet another tale in that genre about the perils of first dates. Not the first date from Hell; Nerve is not that predictable. It prefers to expose the nerve ends of our two wary combatants. "Do you have any quirks?" Susan bluntly asks Elliot. "No," he fires back. "Do you?" "No," she replies almost before his question is asked. They're both liars. The evening revels in their delightful quirkiness.
Susan and Elliot have met online. He in fact is a copyeditor smitten by her e-mail writing style. Of course Elliot is more than his job. As the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, we learn all sorts of surprising things about him. He can be a little obsessive, and he also has this thing for puppets. Susan, no puppeteer, relieves her stress by indulging in paroxysms of modern dance. She works as a temp by day and at a suicide hotline by night. At least that's what she says. But there's no reason to accept at face value anything we overhear here; no one is bound by truth on a first date. Granted, Susan knows a lot about suicide hotlines, but not necessarily because she works at one. Perhaps our first insight into the dagger-toting character occurs when she says that she likes movies about people with "inner torment."
Charlie Barron is a definitive "less is more" actor. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he scans his scripts on the lookout for dialogue to trim. The less he has to say, the richer his character. He's much happier acting between the words than on them. Even when portraying a leading role, Barron is the ultimate supporting player, because he encourages — demands, really — that his leading ladies listen that much more intently.
Barron has found an ideal sparring partner in Colleen Backer. When she's in her groove — as she was two months ago in Mustard Seed's The Good Times Are Killing Me and as she is again here — Backer is irresistible. But Good Times was mostly a monologue; here she has someone to play with. Throughout the evening Backer is so spontaneous, a viewer who didn't know better might wonder if this role was written especially for her. You can almost imagine the playwright sitting in on the Echo Theatre rehearsals, feeding her new lines suited to her delivery.
So much ground is covered during this brief piece, it's as if the script is trying to compress the evolution of an entire relationship into one hour. Eric Little has directed the piece with a keen eye to spatial relationships. On this spare set that is little more than two chairs and a table, beer bottles assume unexpected importance. For Elliot they are a kind of life preserver, something to clutch as he treads the dark waters of dating. As this no-man's-land of a tabletop becomes cluttered with bottles, Susan and Elliot are forced to emerge from their protected lairs on either side of the table. As they move ever closer to each other, we in the audience move closer to them.
But at hour's end it's time to move on. Which is to suggest that although the hour comes to an end, the play does not; it just sorta stops. As occurs whenever we eavesdrop on people at the next table, we have a terrific time listening. But then we must pay our bill and go home, leaving these intriguing strangers to their still-mysterious, ever-unsolved lives.
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