The education of Rob Nash Review: Two-act, one-man play about horrors of high school should get better with age.

November 17, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

High school may not be an experience everyone cares to relive, but Rob Nash leaps boldly back in time to re-create the horrors, embarrassments, heartbreaks and occasional heartwarming moments of those formative years in his two-part, one-man show, "Freshman Year Sucks" and "Sophomore Slump" at the Theatre Project.

And, like many an adolescent who struggles through an identity crisis in high school, Nash's uneven show, which is still very much a work in progress, suffers from an identity crisis of its own.

The two one-acts that make up the evening are the first installments of an intended tetralogy, each set in a different year in high school and each in a different decade. ("It's theater. We can do this," Nash explains in a program note.) The Theatre Project engagement is the first time Nash has combined two parts into a single production, and it is a production whose second half is far superior to its first.

Both parts focus on three friends -- angry Johnny, effeminate Ben and soprano-voiced George -- at a Jesuit high school in Texas. Nash not only portrays this awkward, unpopular trio; he also plays all of their parents, teachers, friends and enemies (with-out a single costume change).

But though he has developed different body language, accents and inflections for each character, the distinctions between them often blur during the first half (set in 1981-1982). The parents of Johnny and Ben, for example, seem virtually interchangeable -- a problem that might be partially alleviated if each family had its own acting area. And the segments that seem to be intended as tours de force, with Nash doing short takes as a raft of characters one after another -- the entire school faculty, for instance -- are more frenetic than effective.

In contrast, "Sophomore Slump" (set in 1992-1993) is far more tightly plotted and structured, offering a glimpse of how satisfying the entire production might become.

The basic format is a flashback that begins with a flurry of $10 bills descending onto the stage and front rows of the theater, as the three boys explain that a falling-out over money nearly severed their friendship.

In the hour or so that follows, we meet George's new friend Norman (a wonderful sniveling character who is even nerdier than the three protagonists); a dangerous bookie and his henchman; and a host of real-life characters -- from Johnny Carson to Nelson Mandela -- in various dream sequences.

Throughout the evening, however, it is the more in-depth portrayals that shine, especially Nash's extremely sympathetic depiction of Mr. Smith, "the coolest teacher at Holy Cross," who teaches not only speech and driver's ed, but also how to be caring, responsible grown-ups-in-training.

Nash spent part of his career as a stand-up comic, and his impersonation sequences may reflect that genre, but he also pretty successfully avoids one-liners in favor of more developed storytelling.

The performer/playwright has utilized the services of a director and dramaturg in earlier incarnations of these pieces, and a New York director is scheduled to come down and look at the work in Baltimore, with an eye toward taking it off-Broadway in the spring.

Nash has made a decent start here, but he definitely needs someone with editing and shaping skills to take this production in hand before it is ready to graduate to New York.

Rob Nash

What: Two one-acts

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 29

Tickets: $14

Call: 410-752-8558

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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