“It’s in his kiss”… Nerve at N.C. Stage

This is what one wants from the stage: our world reflected with such singularity that we see its strangeness afresh, with unexpected richness and depth. That’s what North Carolina Stage Company accomplished two months back with its production of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View, and they’re doing it again now, with a very different play, by hosting Bat & Horse Theatre Art’s fully accomplished debut, a deft and mesmerizing mounting of Adam Szymkowicz’s two-hander, Nerve. This is one “dark, romantic comedy” you won’t want to miss.

Susan and Elliott (Karri Brantley-Ostergaard and David Ostergaard) are young New York singles we accompany on the bar part of their online-arranged date. They’ve just seen a movie together — one of Michael Moore’s. (Since Nerve originally appeared in 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the most likely candidate, and suggests something of the tenuous emotional state these two are in.) Beers in hand in a dimly lit watering hole with an always-on jukebox (mostly featuring John Lennon material, which proves apt in numerous ways), they’re having an ice-breaking conversation in which Elliott, with excessive fervor, postulates a first kiss and expostulates on what its meaning will be, how one can tell from it and it alone the direction the relationship will take. Susan is, understandably, taken aback, and not for the last time. But she has a few questionable notions of her own, which now and again throw Elliott for a loop, too.

As they begin to get to know one another, so do we, in their real time. They are, simultaneously, appealing and off-putting, open and scarred, sensitive and scary, which makes them mysterious not only to each other but to themselves and, importantly, to the audience. As they consider, and variously deal with, past and present relationships, dead ends and future possibilities, they are, above all, like most of us, very, very needy. Their need both to love and to be loved, right now, dramatically accelerates the development of intimacy. If anything, everything proceeds too quickly for the mind — theirs or ours — to comprehend, which is one source of the many laughs the evening entails. It’s also a source of fear, which is where the dark part comes in.

This is very much a play of its times, by, for, and about today’s instant-access generation. Subject matter touched upon, besides computer dating, includes tattoos, piercings, bondage, cutting, bathroom sex, stalking, restraining orders, antidepressants, suicide hotlines — oh, and love everlasting. But this list tells you little about Nerve, a play that bravely, incisively slices through such superficial features to reveal what lurks beneath.

Kudos to director/producer Joshua Batenhorst not only for approaching the complex, penetrating text with great skill, intelligence, and sensitivity, but for assembling a first-rate production team and, signally, for casting and abetting the Ostergaards, a real-life couple able effortlessly to make us believe they’ve never met before. He’s tall and thin; she’s short and curvaceous; each has a sweet, expressive face one wants to watch longer than this show allows. The twists and turns of the characters’ self-revelations would be nearly impossible for the most-seasoned performers to negotiate, but the Ostergaards nail every one. Watch that first kiss — if you can; it’s steamy enough that one momentarily fears invading the Ostergaards’ privacy — and then watch the last, which tells a different story altogether. That’s acting, friends.

There’s nothing difficult about Nerve, formally. Apart from impressive interludes — involving Elliott and a puppet, and Susan dancing, sometimes with strips of paper napkin —this feels like slice-of-life drama. But the psychological perplexities make for a subtle play that would be all too easy for actors to mess up and for a director to impose upon, or to over-explain. So it’s a testament to all involved that one can’t imagine a better-understood or more palpably felt rendering of Szymkowicz’s remarkable script.

See this play, which runs little more than an hour. You won’t regret it, and you won’t forget it.

Nerve, by Adam Szymkowicz. Produced and directed by Joshua Batenhorst. Lighting design by Jason Williams. Sound design and live mixing by Jeremy Ferguson. Choreography by Cherie Holmes. With David Ostergaard (Elliott) and Karri Brantley-Ostergaard (Susan). Thursdays through Saturdays, through Sept. 26. Choose your own ticket price, $12 to $27. Shows at 7:30 p.m.

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