Tom Topor's Nuts, currently in the final weekend of a briskly effective production at Actors Theatre, has an unpromising title that threatens run-of-the-mill farce. In fact, although Nuts has its moments of pointed comedy, for the most part it's a surprisingly stirring courtroom drama that studiously examines the social construction of "madness" while providing a group of meaty roles for an ensemble of accomplished actors. Audiences will probably be passingly familiar with the 1987 film version (adapted by Topor and others), directed by Martin Ritt and starring its producer, Barbra Streisand, with Richard Dreyfuss. They will also be happy to learn that in more than a few aspects, the gritty Actors Theatre company, under the direction of Brandon Smith, gives Streisand et al. a lively run for their money.
The confined company stage is well suited to this claustrophobic piece, which takes place entirely in a small, formal courtroom within the psychiatric wing of New York's Bellevue Hospital. Claudia Faith Draper (Kate Revnell-Smith) has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. Against her will, her wealthy parents are hoping that she will be judged incompetent to stand trial, sparing her suffering (as they see it) and them embarrassment. But Claudia and her court-appointed attorney (she fired her father's choice), Aaron Levinsky (Rutherford Cravens), are determined to prove her sane enough to stand trial, even if they have to drive everybody else in the courtroom nuts to do it.
That's the undeniably stagy premise -- although it's said to be based on an actual New York case -- and the film skirted its constraints by adding a longish arraignment preamble, intermittent madhouse business, foggy expository flashbacks and innumerable tear-jerking closeups, mostly of Streisand. Without those options, director Smith hews to his text and works his actors, and they rise to the occasion handsomely. The play never quite escapes its artificial bounds -- when the judge comments on his procedures, "We're a good deal less formal here than is the rule, but this is still a court of law," we know he's talking to us as much as to his would-be realistic courtroom -- but within those adjusted limits, Nuts has the charged intensity of legal melodrama and sufficient suspense to sustain its three-act illusion of pending verdict.
It's rude to say much more without stealing a good bit of that suspense, which is one of the puzzle-solving pleasures of this sort of stagecraft. It suffices to note that Claudia's life has veered a good deal wide of the straight and respectable road her parents might have imagined for her, and that we are slowly led to discover that the primary reason behind her detour was the dark family melodrama of her relationship with her mother, Rose Kirk (Melinda deKay), and stepfather (Jim Jeter). After many years of estrangement, her parents have come to this hospital courtroom to declare their love for her, but step by step it becomes clear that Claudia's childhood was far from a happy one. Though Topor's play was composed before the current cultural preoccupation with "dysfunctional families," his self-contained script is a textbook example of the genre.
The family and the court look for classical psychological explanations for Claudia's misbehavior, and with the deck stacked in their favor it would seem that Bellevue psychiatrist Dr. Rosenthal (Orvis Melvin), appointed by prosecutor Francis Macmillan (Cindy Hogan), will have no trouble convincing Judge Murdoch (Darwin Miller) to put Claudia away. But these are odds relished by any stage lawyer worth his briefcase, and Levinsky and his client quickly turn the tables by putting everybody else but the court recorder and the bailiff on trial. Dr. Rosenthal is shown to be a pompous pretender who, when faced with an impertinent patient, reaches for the Thorazine; the judge's courtroom is revealed as a kangaroo venue devoted to rule at the expense of principle; and Claudia's loving family, last and least of all, is unmasked as a smiling nest of vipers she was lucky to escape. Every heroine may not need a good man, but a good lawyer can come in handy.
Cravens certainly fills the bill, although his Levinsky begins his initial cross-examinations so aggressively that he has a hard time ratcheting upward as the play progresses. Cravens makes Levinsky's predicament fun to watch; he doesn't care for his client or her case, but he rises to the battle because he cares for his opponents even less. He is grimly counterattacked by Cindy Hogan's no-nonsense prosecutor, who evinces a stern professionalism that fits the role and the courtroom. Orvis Melvin as Dr. Rosenthal is in the rather hapless position of a straw man used to beat on psychiatry, but he holds his own, and Melinda deKay lends her usual adept nuance to Rose Kirk, particularly when she turns on her daughter in retaliation for long years of silence and separation.
Portraying the just-might-be-nuts Claudia Faith Draper (the triple-barreled name has its own resonance), Kate Revnell-Smith has a role to chew scenery for and is to be applauded just for reining in the old histrionic instincts. Claudia has to seem just crazy enough to hold the court's (and our) indictment, but not so nuts as to make the final judgment dubious. In the Streisand version, both the star casting and the dreamy closeups made the verdict screamingly inevitable. As written, Claudia's character is guilty more of bad manners than of craziness, and it's a tribute to Revnell-Smith's performance that she walks the uncertain line Topor has drawn between madness and impudence.
As it happens, Topor's most intriguing character, and the evening's most riveting portrayal, is provided by veteran Jim Jeter's version of stepfather Arthur Kirk. Kirk's Act Two dissolution on the stand is a small masterpiece of braggadocio, bluster, condescension, cornpone nonsense and accumulating hysteria, and after he staggers away from his revelatory testimony the whole play seems to be a rising to and falling away from Jeter's performance.
That performance is certainly a good reason to catch this production, which is marked by a high stage shine and a host of small, sly touches such as the Joni Mitchell ("My Analyst Told Me") and Maria Muldaur ("Don't You Feel My Leg") songs that provide a soundtrack during courtroom recesses. Nuts is not a great piece of playwriting, but it's a very good one, and its considerable virtues are precisely realized in this animated and intelligent production, a smart addition to the company's repertoire.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.