nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2007
Sam Marks's new play Nelson, presented by Partial Comfort Productions, is an edgy, super-involving drama about a man who gets in too deep where he oughtn't and tells a lie to try to cover it all up. The results prove explosive and, eventually, tragic. Marks has crafted a canny, taut thriller for the stage that's beautifully acted by a cast of three under the heart-poundingly exciting direction of Kip Fagan.
Nelson is a young man who works in a talent agency, assisting a guy named Joe (who dislikes Nelson intensely—but we get the impression early on that Joe dislikes just about everybody). Away from his job, Nelson hangs out with his old pal Charlie, who gets him a gig making videos for a more dangerous boss, some sort of gangster who is trying to intimidate his enemies by sending out what look like (and could be) snuff films, with the explicit suggestion that, if you cross him, this could happen to you.
Nelson also nurses a serious crush on a wannabe movie star who is handled by his talent agency. But on the few occasions when he actually gets an opportunity to work with her, he creeps her out with his obsessiveness.
Is Nelson just a little bit dumb? Gullible? Crazy? Marks lets us decide for ourselves as his protagonist's life goes wildly askew. He carelessly brings one of his snuff videos to work, where Joe finds it; this sets off a string of events in which Nelson's work and home lives collide violently. Nelson's feeble attempts to lie his way out of his troubles—he tells Joe that the video isn't his, and he tells Charlie that no one has seen the videos—escalate and careen out of control. As the play reaches its genuinely exciting climax, all three men would appear to be in serious danger. Survival instincts kick in, as we wonder who, if anyone, is going to make it out of this mess unscathed.
Fagan and his set designer Lex Liang have ingeniously placed both halves of Nelson's life in a single space on stage, so that his apartment and his office co-exist, with Nelson claustrophobically stuck in an increasingly Twilight Zone-y mashup of both of them. When he cleans up his apartment, he stows things in an office cabinet; while his boss berates him, stretched out atop a desk, Nelson sits panicky on his couch.
Other design elements—Elizabeth Flauto's character-specific costumes, Zachary Williamson's sound, and especially Jason Jeunnette's evocative lighting—contribute mightily to the ambience.
The performances of the three-man cast are spot-on. Frank Harts is terrific as the confused but likable Nelson, letting us see what's behind the string of bad judgments that propel the story. Samuel Ray Gates moves through Charlie's emotional states, from unaffected cameradie to menace to fear, convincingly. Alexander Alioto, as Joe, creates a memorable and entirely believable character: the office wiseguy that nobody likes, who doesn't seem to care about anything.
Nelson has a gripping, fascinating story to tell, and thanks to the artistry of its creators, it tells it extremely well. This is indie theater at its very best, and at just $15 a ticket, one of the best live entertainment values in town.