POP: Gus on Nerve

What is POP (aka) Playwrights-On-Playwrights?
Who else is POPing Adam Szymkowicz?

Batting clean up: August Schulenburg on Adam Szymkowicz’s Nerve

August’s plays include Riding the Bull, Rue, Other Bodies, The Lesser Seductions of History, Jacob’s House, Good Hope, Kidding Jane and Carrin Beginning.

Nerve has been produced in NYC, St Louis, Miami, Asheville, Philadelphia, and beyond. For more information about Nerve, check out Adam’s website. Nerve is published by Dramatists Play Service, and is available here and here.

Under the hood of Nerve
by August Schulenburg

There are messy plays that strive and fail and spill food on their shirts and sweat more than they should but somehow end up as essential things. Then there are plays like Nerve that feel nearly perfect in their execution, that meet the Salieri test: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” Nerve is a near-perfectly structured play about two people who strive and fail and spill food on their shirts and sweat more than they should and so wind up as essential to each other.

And what is this near-perfect structure? It revolves around a simple strophe/antistrophe: Susan and Elliot dialogue until a dangerous secret is revealed, causing one to retreat to the bathroom or bar; then the revealed secret is processed emotionally through individual rituals; then the lovers are prepared to go forward, and return to each other.

Broken down, it looks like this, with the S sections staged realistically, and the A sections involving some light/music stylistic shift:

S1: Elliot reveals he wants Susan in his life. Susan reveals a knife.
A1: Elliot calls a friend to say she could be the one. Susan does a dance of joy.

S2: Elliot reveals his ex was a liar. Susan says she never lies, and Elliot doesn’t believe her.
A2: Susan crumples to the floor and crawls to the bathroom. Elliot hits himself hard in the head.

S3: Susan reveals she makes up dances in her head to escape. Elliot reveals he becomes easily obsessed with women.
A3: Susan tears up napkins, makes patterns, then dances between hope and caution.

S4: Elliot says “I love you”.
A4: Elliot battles his doubts through a demonic puppet of his ex-girlfriend.

S5: Susan says, “I love you, too” and they kiss! They agree to be boyfriend and girlfriend.
A5: Susan tears more napkins, dances indecision and fear of being trapped, then dances through those fears into calm.

S6: Susan reveals she cuts herself, and Elliot accepts her.
A6: Susan makes a phone call, breaking things off with the other guy.

S7: Elliot asks if she wants to go back to his place, Susan takes him into the bathroom.
A7: They have sex! This is the first time in the play that they’ve shared the offstage transformational moment; we’ve been building to this through the first six sections.

S8: Elliot is now insanely jealous of every man in the bar, revealing he has been to jail for stalking.
A8: Now napkins fall from the ceiling, and Susan dances like a marionette, cutting her strings with her knife, then cutting herself, bleeding everywhere and trying to stop it with napkins.

S9: Susan tries to end the relationship, but Elliot won’t let her, and they kiss again.
A9: This time, they kiss on stage, without any music shift, or lights effect, or napkins falling, or puppetry; and after they kiss they are quiet for a long time.

Reading the play for pleasure, and I assume in performance, this structure has an organic, inevitable feel; but looking under the hood, you can see how clever Adam is with the structure, especially the last three antistrophes. After establishing the rhythm through the first six movements, he breaks it on the seventh by having them share the transformational moment; he then escalates past that through the first really violent, scary moment of the play, where Susan cuts herself; and in a masterstroke of structure, the final transformational ritual happens at the table, without any of the effects or stylistic shifts from the previous eight. However, because of the previous eight, the kiss they share is more than a kiss; it is the final ritual affirmation of their love and commitment to each other.

Next up is Pretty Theft, and there, Adam will take considerable risks in structure; but here in Nerve, he uses a simple structure brilliantly, compressing the emotional journey of months into a single night through alternating real and stylistically heightened scenes. In contrast to Pretty Theft, Susan and Elliot are contained by the play perfectly; displace one movement of the play and the structure will fall.

Can you tell I’m excited to talk about Pretty Theft? I am. But that is another POP for another day…

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  1. […] such fears were unfounded, as the review is mostly positive (though I strongly disagree with his diagnosis of Nerve, a play that always seems to be on stage somewhere) and full of useful insights–I […]

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