If the plot of the play Nuts were reduced to a pair of screaming headlines in a New York tabloid, they would shout: “Sexy call girl offs john!” and “Hooker claims ‘I’m not crazy!'”
Given that playwright Tom Topor once wrote for the New York Post, the image might not be that far-fetched.
Yet Topor’s script — and the folks staging the Asheville production of the 1970s-era play — instead seem inclined to home in on the humanity to be found in this sad, sordid tale.
Nuts explores the world of Claudia Draper, an “upper-class call girl” in New York who’s accused of killing a customer. Draper’s wealthy mother and stepfather have petitioned to have the woman declared incompetent to stand trial — which could result in a lifetime mental-hospital gig. Draper and her lawyer, however, maintain that she’s not “nuts,” and they fight for her right to have her day in court.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, you may be remembering the 1987 film version, starring Barbra Streisand as the prostitute and Richard Dreyfuss as her lawyer. Topor’s play also had a Broadway run back in 1980.
Sensationalism (and Streisand) aside, there’s a compelling reason to take in the local production, presented at the Artists Resource Center’s tiny theater on Wall Street: Chances are, you’ll be jarred into feeling something.
Perhaps a wave of sympathy will well up for the stunningly misunderstood Claudia Draper, played by Madeleine Davis. You might tap into a rising sense of creepiness evoked by Draper’s stepfather, Arthur Kirk, played by Arthur Robb-Cohen (appearing under the stage name Daniel Robb). Or you might flame with anger at mental-health and legal systems that seem horribly out of whack.
Burning fire and colored lights
At a rehearsal last week in the ARC’s snack bar, I watched the actors work out their lines. (The occasional clueless patron who traipsed through the “courtroom” made it all the more entertaining.)
In the third and final act, Draper insists that she be allowed to testify. Wearing green-striped pajamas, a white bathrobe, white socks and sandals, she sits with hands folded in her lap while prosecutor MacMillan (Ellen Pfirrmann) grills her about her occupation.
Spirited, clearheaded and determined, the accused killer is impossible not to root for — especially in light of the formidable collection of authority figures arrayed against her.
In a mesmerizing scene, Draper finally is pushed into rattling off a graphic menu of her sexual services and fees. A straight lay ($100) is the tamest offering.
Then she drawls seductively: “Honey, I am worth the trouble, let me tell you. … I am talking about a piece of ass like you have never seen. I am talking about good times, darlin’. I am talking about burning fire and colored lights. I am talking about taking your body to heaven and your mind with it. I am talking about spoiling you so bad you’re going to hate every other woman you touch …
“I’m gonna show you what dreams are made of,” she coos. “Then I’m going to give you those dreams, one by one, hand by hand, all for you, just for you, nobody but you. Do you hear that? Nobody but you.”
Then Draper demands of the stunned courtroom, “Do you all get what I am telling you?”
Her change in tone highlights her resolve to be taken seriously, despite her unconventional lifestyle choice. After a dramatic showdown with pompous hospital psychiatrist Dr. Herbert A. Morrison (nicely portrayed by Director Andrew Reed), she asserts her right to a trial.
“I knew what I was doing every goddamn minute. I am responsible,” Draper declares, feet planted firmly apart. “If I play the part you want me to play, if I play sick, I’m not responsible. Poor dumb, sick Claudia, she’s not responsible, the poor sick thing. She needs our help. I won’t play that part. I won’t be another picture in your head: Claudia’s a nut. I won’t be nuts for you. Do you get what I’m telling you?
“Get it straight. I won’t be nuts for you!”
Still heavy after all these years
With Claudia’s powerful lines — and Davis’ impassioned delivery — the rest of the cast faces a formidable task in matching her intensity without chomping scenery.
Well-known local actor Kay Galvin (playing Claudia’s mother) wasn’t there the night I popped in. But in a sneak peek at Act 2, Robb-Cohen (as the stepfather) offered a convincing portrayal of a man trying to dance around a disturbing secret. The cast also includes Jon Howard (as Claudia’s lawyer), Tyler Cloherty (the court reporter), Kent Smith (the bailiff) and Linda Wells (the judge).
Last week, with more than a week’s worth of rehearsals still ahead of them, there seemed to be plenty of time for cast members to work out kinks, polish up lines, and practice New York-style pacing.
Despite the highly charged subject matter, moments of levity are sprinkled throughout the production. A pair of intermissions break up the three-act play.
“This is heavy stuff, most of it, and we do need some breathers,” concedes Davis after the rehearsal.
Theatergoers will need a break, too. In the intimate space (which will seat about 50 people for this production), the audience will double as courtroom spectators, notes Reed.
Although Nuts aims to entertain, the director also wants to raise awareness of the sticky issues the production tackles. In addition, Reed seeks to encourage audience members to support the local organizations that deal with these sorts of problems, such as Children First, Eliada Homes, Helpmate, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Our Voice, which operates a 24-hour crisis line (255-7576) for sexual-assault victims.
Reed also hopes audience members will walk away with a sense of satisfaction.
“At the end of Act 1, I want them to say, ‘Holy sh••!'” Reed proclaims. “At the end of Act 2, I want them to say, ‘Oh, my God!’ At the end of Act 3, I want them to say, ‘Yes’!”
Or, in the parlance of tabloid headline writers: “Who’s smiling now?”
Area: 45 at the Artists Resource Center (45 Wall St.) presents Nuts Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 9 through Nov. 1. Shows start at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $10/adults, $8/students. Children under 16 won’t be admitted without a parent or guardian. For tickets and more information, call 252-8806.