Nils' Fucked Up Day
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
August 14, 2011
Sometimes banned, sometimes celebrated in its native Romania, Nils' Fucked Up Day arrives at this year's FringeNYC with the ambitious agenda of translating some of its text and subject matter to resonate with an American audience. While one has a sense that the characters and setting are distinctly representative of a former Communist country struggling with its own identity, there are certain universal themes to be explored.
The play depicts a handful of druggies and schemers living in a decrepit apartment, some dreaming of brighter days, others content wallowing in their own filth. Jobs are a foreign concept, death is a punchline, and sexuality is primarily a form of trade. Set in a single room, the day starts with the titular character Nils and his friend Hans preparing to get high, receiving bad news, then getting high as though nothing's changed. Nevertheless, the news causes a bad trip, which causes one heated encounter after another with the assorted comrades who cross their paths as the day wears on.
After the turmoil comes to an abrupt halt, the same events are replayed as an upper class satire, with the characters' obsessions turning from drugs and sex to homework and proper etiquette. The tonal shift is so thorough that the characters' saccharine dealings with one another become far more difficult to watch than the immorality that preceded them. By presenting this dichotomy, writer/director Peca Stefan seems to be asking which path holds the greater vice: to actively engage with the world even if it means destroying oneself, or to adopt society's established conventions without ever seeking a deeper truth.
In its current form, the play is still finding its voice for an American audience. One has the sense that the provocative magic of the original production might have come from the jovial, routine manner in which the central duo recounts the rapes and murders they've committed. Here, the dialogue is still largely in its native language, and the English-speaking audience is forced to split attention between the actors onstage and the subtitles overhead. The production team chooses to give the subtitles a sardonic humor all their own (commenting on the play instead of depicting it), however a more straightforward translation might have proven more beneficial. As of now, the nuances of the characters' conversation get lost, and it therefore proves difficult to invest in their skewed sense of reality.
There are other moments that have been adapted more successfully. Periodically, Nils approaches the audience to deliver a monologue that breaks the fourth wall. Early on, he tells us that this will be the first time the show will be performed in English. "Exciting for you," he says, "Just difficult for us." In fact, these brief interludes accomplish far more than simply providing context for the events to follow. They help the audience to overcome the vast divide between their own lives and the squalor depicted onstage, thereby accessing the deeper themes of the piece rather than being caught up in the whirlwind that surrounds them.
Cinty Ionescu's pre-show video design is particularly successful, as it incorporates clips from American pop culture that set a broader context for the production. The selections seem to argue that the things that society chooses to deem taboo (such as dirty language or a celebrity's misbehavior) are relatively minor when compared to the daily tragedies (such as a war casualties, rising unemployment, and a failing education system) that are rarely, if ever, challenged in a substantial way.
There's a lot going on in Peca Stefan's work. He has a stellar cast who courageously tackle the language barrier and nonetheless bring the show to life in a memorable way. I hope to see this show again if Stefan continues to expand its American version, as I think it will only grow stronger for its experience playing at the festival.