Back to School

Last summer ex-Houstonian Rob Nash brought his one-man show Freshman Year Sucks! to Stages for a successful premiere. Loosely based on Nash's high school experiences at Strake Jesuit, the play focuses on the angst-ridden lives of three "nonconformists," gangly teenage boys who struggle to find themselves. Early on they meet at school and decide to "get together and nonconform!"

For those who missed Nash's show last year, Stages has brought it back and then some. Turns out the one-act play was simply the first of a four-part "Holy Cross Quadrilogy." This year Nash gives us the second installment, Sophomore Slump, in tandem with Freshman Year Sucks!

There's nothing new about the terrible traumas of teens, but Nash managed to put a fresh spin on this ancient conflict with his virtuoso performance, in which he plays all 40 or so characters. With a turn of the chin and a twist of the wrist, Nash morphs from beefy, brooding Johnny, to effeminately gay Ben, to pudgy little George who's given to such geeky taunts as "don't make me open up a can of kick-ass!" But Nash's range is much wider than a group of zit-faced boys. He also plays Maria, Johnny's smart, feminist, Hispanic girlfriend from the "Our Lady of Suffering" girl's school next door. There's slutty Jennifer, Maria's best friend, who thinks she can get a guy to like her by sleeping with him.

And don't forget the grown-ups who govern the lives of angry adolescents. Mr. Kant, the American history teacher, has a limp in his gait and a wide Midwestern twang when he talks about the trouble with contemporary politics: It's all about "minutia." According to Mr. Kant, politics has become more about "Bush's vomit" and the "proper spelling of potato" than about issues. There's the theology teacher, Mr. Dickerson, who is a loser for many reasons -- including the fact that "the guy has 'dick' in his name!" Mr. Smith is the only "cool" teacher. He teaches English and encourages Johnny to write and refine his gnarly poetry. Johnny eventually puts his dark Kurt Cobain-inspired lyrics to music because "rock and roll is poetry with a tune."

The misbehaving, disconnected parents who know nothing about their children's secret lives appear on stage to torment their children with their twisted, upper-middle-class values. Mr. Daly, a lonely widower who's given to long rants against Our Holy Cross School, calls the men who run it a bunch of "Pope-worshiping Polack-Dago-Mick-Spic Jesuits."

The most impressive aspect of this show is that all characters come off as fully realized. And Nash's writing is as quirky and uncannily real as his performance.

Sophomore Slump introduces new characters, including Norman Normal, a pathetic Dungeons and Dragons-playing geek given to discussing ways he could kill a person with his bare hands. When he and George meet Jennifer and Maria at a hamburger joint, he greets them by saying, "Nanu Nanu. Greeting, Earth chicks."

Later we learn that Mr. Smith has AIDS. Johnny and his friends raise money at a music festival dubbed Smithfest. Everyone's drinking Crystal Light -- after all, this is the early '90s. Ben comes out. Johnny starts a band called FTGCA, for Fuck the Government and Corporate America.

By the end of the show, the audience has fallen a little bit in love with these characters, who are living so valiantly through those terrifying teenage traumas that we grown-ups gratefully left behind forever.

Freshman Year Sucks! and Sophomore Slump run through July 18 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, (713)52-STAGE. $12-$15.

Blithe Spiritless
Noel Coward became famous during the first half of this century, mostly for his bubbly comedies filled with eccentrics who drank very dry martinis and lived fun-filled, risque lifestyles. Blithe Spirit, about a man who conjures up his dead first wife much to the dismay of his living second wife, fits nicely into this somewhat antiquated genre. Written in London as German bombs were falling in 1941, the play became what Coward intended, a "very gay, superficial comedy." Of course, these days we have lots of "gay, superficial" television, so whether we need theater of this sort might be debated. Like it or not, this old horse of a script has been given a competent if uninspired reprisal at Main Street Theater.

Lights come up on the living room of successful novelist Charles Condomine (Jerry Miller) and wife Ruth (Charlene Hudgins). The couple is getting ready to host, of all things, a seance. Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Tim Palumbo and Ellen Suits) are invited to join the odd entertainment at which the four upwardly mobile and terribly sensible professionals plan on having a good laugh. Condomine wants simply to see the nuts and bolts of a seance so he can include such a scene in his latest book. To that end, he has employed batty old Madame Arcati (Joan Fox) to rub her crystal ball and beckon forth spirits from the "other side."

Lots of chitchat goes on about Condomine's first wife, Elvira (Karen Ross). She had "gay charm" when she got her way and an "acid" tongue when she didn't. Ruth's marriage to Condomine doesn't have any "careless rapture" about it and is haunted by his memories of the beautiful Elvira.

She had a way about her that was "of the earth -- earthy," sighs Ruth.
"She does now anyway," retorts Condomine, full of irreverent Coward wit.
All this small talk foreshadows the appearance of ghostly Elvira. Dressed in gray gauze with powdery white skin, she dances into the room and reveals herself to Condomine, who's undone by his own foolish tampering with dark magic.

Naturally, Elvira has come back to get her man. And Ruth does all she can to keep him. She figures out, after a series of unfortunate "accidents" happen in their home, that Elvira wants to take Condomine with her to the other side. What else would a woman whose favorite tune was "Always" want?

There are a few surprising turns in the script for those who have never seen this show. However, there is nothing really new or surprising in either Claire Hart-Palumbo's direction or in the actors' interpretations of their characters. But none of these people bring the kind of joy to the stage that Coward needs to make his plays worth seeing.

Blithe Spirit runs through July 25 at Main Street Theater, 2450 Times Boulevard, (713)526-6706. $13-$18.


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