Serious Dysfunction

About four years ago, Rob Nash -- skinny Spring Branch boy and onetime TUTS junior thespian turned standup comic -- was asked by the folks at Curtains Theater to give them "some kind of one-man show" to help fill their fallow summer season. Exactly what sort of performance Nash had in mind wasn't made clear, but the Curtains people decided to take a gamble on it anyway.

It turned out to be a good move. What Nash cobbled together in the six weeks between the time he promised a show and the time the audience settled into their seats was 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional You, a production that, like Joe Sears and Jaston Williams' Tuna performances or Radio Music Theatre's works centering on the Fertle clan, has become a Houston institution. You could almost say that Nash has made a cottage industry out of being dysfunctional. He followed the original Dysfuctional You -- which played in Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe, as well as Houston -- with the also successful 12 Steps to a Dysfunctional Christmas. And now he's getting ready to launch yet another part of his Dysfunctional saga, 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family, Part III, which opens this week at Stages.

Nash got his early formal training at Theatre Under the Stars' Humphries School of Musical Theater. His parents, good suburbanites, signed him up for acting, singing and dance classes when he was 11. Still, despite his teenage success in community theater, Nash planned on becoming an English teacher. Then, an innocent night out changed the course of his life: he and some college friends went to a comedy club. Nash decided to give open mike night a shot, and soon, instead of enjoying a carefree life as a University of Texas English major, he was working at Austin's Esther's Follies doing comedy cabaret.

Since then, Nash has done standup on all the expected cable shows, carving out an adequate career as a comedian. But it's the Dysfunctional shows that have made his reputation and introduced people around the country to the quirks of a Houston family. All three Dysfunctional works center around the Smith family. Nash, going solo, plays the entire cast.

A chair, a bed, perhaps a wheelchair -- these are Nash's only props. While Jaston Williams and Joe Sears use a variety of hats, wigs and outfits to create the residents of Tuna, Texas, and the Radio Music Theatre trio similarly dresses up (or down) to present the Fertles, Nash defines his characters with nothing but a thin orange sweater. To create 11-year-old Ashley Smith, the sweater is tied around Nash's waist; to create the lesbian New Ager Windsong Smith, it's worn as a sort of hood; for gay brother Fred, the sweater is worn normally; and to bring forth matriarch Mildred, the sweater is draped over the shoulders.

It's a minimal look for maximum effect. And without Nash's acting, well-written dialogue and ear for tone, it wouldn't do much to distinguish his six characters. Factor in the performing skills, though, and the characters split apart into a sextet of distinctive personalities.

Mildred has always been introduced first. In the original show's opening scene, she sits alone in a chair and tells the audience she's making a blanket. She also tells the audience, gently but firmly, that she expects them to ooh and aah over her work because she spent 40 years married to an alcoholic who didn't appreciate her. Normally, asking for audience participation is bad theater. But it's a standard way to start a standup act, and it's also a perfect introduction to Nash's Dysfunctional world. His Mildred has a heavy accent, the loving, raspy tone of old ladies in small-town Texas, and though she's enthusiastic about her blanket, and her newfound ability to ask for praise, her joints are stiff with age -- Nash moves his feet as gingerly as any longtime arthritic. The picture of Mildred is complete, the audience is won, and when she displays her finished handiwork -- which actually exists only in Nash's and the audience's minds -- the crowd oohs and aahs in appreciation.

In those first moments, Nash displays how his theater works, how a slender, ordinary-looking young man wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a gold hoop earring can deftly becomes each of the Smiths. The other Smiths are as familiar as Mildred: gay son Fred, lesbian daughter Windsong, Junior Leaguing daughter-in-law Margot, and Margot's children, bow-head Ashley and punk Matt. They may occasionally be extreme, to make dramatic or comedic points, but they're still familiar.

Nash's satiric work casts a jaundiced eye on the recovery culture. Windsong is virtually immobilized by her dependence on New Age practices and 12-step programs while her HIV-positive brother Fred, living with mom again, has been through the recovery mill and believes a little "creative denial management" might be the key.

The Smiths ring true in the suburbs, too. Though fatal car accidents, alcoholism and AIDS aren't everyday events in, for instance, Sugar Creek, and few grandmothers become best-selling authors and sought-after talk show guests, Nash gets fan letters from what he calls "housewifey types" that say, "Oh, I saw my family, thank you!"

People keep coming back, and Nash keeps writing shows, because, though his sparse form is unconventional, the heart of his Dysfunctional theater is conventional. Nash writes what he knows. What Nash knows is suburban life, 12-step programs and gay life -- and finally, how the key to any lifestyle is self-acceptance and empathy for others.

In real life, Nash is still a gay child of the suburbs, but he's dropped out of the recovery culture. After high school, he did a stint at The Meadows treatment center and then spent years, as his character Fred says, "compulsively trying not to be compulsive." "I spent five and a half years sober," says Nash. "Then I stopped going to meetings, got off Prozac and told my therapist I'd see him in a couple of months." He never went back.

Understanding the benefits and limits of recovery programs enables Nash to write a balanced show. "Look," he says, "I had my first beer at 16 and got sober at 18; I had no business calling myself an alcoholic. I was caught up in a movement." Still, he adds, "I believe alcoholism does exist."

Nash's Dysfunctional shows work because he's careful to give all his characters their due. He realizes that Fred's speeches about being HIV-positive would be shallow if not balanced against a sincere treatment of Margot's problems. And, too, he realizes, "Solo performances are already self-indulgent; if the writing is self-indulgent, the whole thing will be really ridiculous."

So far, people are laughing with, not at, Nash, and all indications are that the Dysfunctional tradition will continue strong. The teaser for the new show reads: "Ashley purges; Matt runs away; Margot goes to divinity school; Fred deals with credit card debt; Windsong gets in touch with her colon; and somehow, Mildred manages to keep the whole family together." Yes, it's fine for a family to collapse. Just as long as it falls apart together.

12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family, Part III plays through March 3 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-8243.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edith Sorenson