Ken Urban puts a sci-fi twist on an old tale.
The characters in Ken Urban's Nibbler stand on a threshold: that transitory summer between high school and college that represents for many the last dance of an old life, for others the first taste of a lifetime of drudgery. This world premiere from the Amoralists at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater treads well-worn territory, covered by numerous films including Breaking Away and Say Anything…. As he did with his unsettling bereavement play, The Correspondent, Urban injects a supernatural element into a familiar story. But while that approach kept us disoriented and hungry for answers in The Correspondent, here it just feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on for way too long.
The year is 1992 and recent high school graduate Adam (James Kautz) is hanging out with his friends Hayley (Elizabeth Lail), Tara (Rachel Franco), Matt (Spencer Davis Milford), and Pete (Sean Patrick Monahan) at the Medport Diner in Medford, New Jersey. They're all excited about going off to college, except Adam, who plans to stay in Medford. One night, when they are drinking beer in the elementary school playground, they hear a strange noise and the glow of what looks like a meteor falling from the sky. One by one, they encounter an alien presence that changes them from the kids they were into the adults they will become.
Matt and Hayley are the first, transforming from grunge-listening teens to J. Crew-clad yuppies. As Matt rants about the moochers that George Bush will banish forever, Hayley emotionlessly adds, "Have you seen Hillary Clinton? She's trouble." Conversely, Stanford-bound Tara becomes a vocal Democrat and starts sleeping with a middle-aged cop (a laid-back and somewhat tragic Matthew Lawler). Also, everyone is pretty sure Pete is gay, something that becomes apparent when he transitions from a Led Zeppelin tee to Khaki shorts and a lavender polo shirt (well curated period costumes by Lux Haac).
Only Adam remains unchanged, wearing the same pair of ripped jeans throughout. Kautz portrays him with an aw-shucks teenage charm that has clearly not faded with exposure to his late dad's hardcore porn collection (a cherished bequest).
Urban often relies on crude sexual humor and explicit language for laughs, something that clearly doesn't faze this cast. Lail, in particular, luxuriates in her character's dirty talk in a way that feels strangely majestic (we later learn that her character is a phone sex operator). We giggle at the absurdity of it all, but it shows us little we don't already know about the process of growing up and drifting away from our adolescent friends.
Director Benjamin Kamine attempts to heighten the suspense of the play by committing to the sci-fi horror genre. A green light glows behind a closed door (eerie lighting by Christina Watanabe) accompanied by a scraping sound (bump in the night by Christian Frederickson) and the characters go to investigate. The door slams and we know they're not coming back the same. But when they reemerge body-snatched, their new personalities seem more predestined than horrific, the result of the irresistible pull of tribe and class. For Pete and Tara, it feels like a change for the better.
Eventually, Kamine and Urban drop the sci-fi burlesque, allowing us to see the Nibbler in all its glory. While Stefano Brancato's bunraku-style alien puppet is imaginative and specific, it causes the play to surrender any Hitchcockian suspense or wonder.
None of this is to say we don't appreciate Urban for taking formal risks with a fairly typical story. It's just that these risks don't amount to much when it comes to illuminating and reframing that story in a way that leads to deeper understanding of its themes: the disappointment of adulthood, the dissolution of friendships, and the certainty of death at the end of it all.