Ken Urban’s inventive new play probes the horror of growing up.
Photo by Russ Rowland
It's the summer of 1992, and Adam and his friends are living large. Their plans for the summer before college consist of little more than drinking, smoking, having sex and saying good-bye to one another. But when each friend transforms seemingly overnight into the person they are going to be as an adult (or at least in college), their relationships are pushed to their limits. Not to mention, the force behind these sudden changes may not actually be of this world at all.
Nibbler by Ken Urban is a unique, deeply personal story of five friends and a universal tale of growing up at the same time. Whether or not the particular early '90s references—epitomized by the constant musical references and an entertaining costume design by Lux Haac—hit home for you, the stereotypes the five friends represent certainly will. And yet, under the direction of Benjamin Kamine, this Amoralists production is anything but cliché.
It all begins when couple Hayley and Matt leave a gathering early to go fool around, only to be distracted by a suspicious series of sounds and unnatural green light. The next time anyone sees them, Matt has become a carbon copy of his father, spouting off conservative political rants while the now scrunchy-wearing church girl Hayley listens politely. After a misguided evening of watching porn with Adam, the same thing happens to Pete, and he too transforms into the man and the sexual identity he was always meant to be. By the time Tara encounters this mysterious being, it is clear this creature has the power to change lives.
The "Nibbler" is one of the most impressive feats of this show, from the immensely detailed puppet designed by Stefano Brancato to its expert manipulation by the actors. Yet, the Nibbler isn't evil, per se, and its interventions may in fact be an improvement in the lives of the young men and women it visits. Except, of course, from the point of view of Adam, whom the creature chooses to leave behind.
This wildly inventive metaphor for growing up makes Nibbler one of a kind. Other unique elements of this production include the recurring use of nudity to show the actors behaving like real people during sex, frequent without being gratuitous, and the character of Officer Dan, a foil for Adam who never left Medford, New Jersey and would rather hang around smoking weed with teenagers than be the adult he supposedly represents. When Dan begins seeing 18-year-old Tara, the relationship is handled delicately and without judgment.
Each of the six actors onstage portray a piece of the puzzle that is growing up in suburbia and all of the pain that involves. Elizabeth Lail bounces between upper middle class polish and self-destructive sexuality with grace, while Sean Patrick Monahan brings Pete's heartbreaking journey to discovering his true identity to life. Rachel Franco is deeply sympathetic as the earnest, ambitious Tara, despite her questionable choices, while Spencer Davis Milford's rapid transformation into Republican Matt and Matthew Lawler's intriguing stoner cop Officer Dan bring welcome elements of humor to the play.
And then there is Adam, the one who doesn't get to transform. James Kautz captures the nuances of the character's much more subtle journey to adulthood, but because all of the elements in his life that are holding him back—his father's death, his mother's neglect and the aftermath of his girlfriend's abortion—all take place offstage, his story is more expository than it is theatrical. That Adam's girlfriend Julie never makes an appearance during the play seems a particularly noticeable absence. Meanwhile, though Nibbler focuses primarily on Adam and Tara's stories, the struggles of the other three friends after their extraterrestrial transformations do not always receive all the attention they deserve.
From the onstage swing set to its extensive soundtrack, this play screams nostalgia. And yet, Ken Urban's script is witty and original, an undeniably new take on growing up and moving on. Nibbler is far more than your typical coming-of-age tale, and it's a performance you won't soon forget.
Nibbler plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre through March 18.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.