You know that feeling you get just after you've watched Midnight Cowboy? Y'know -- that kind of sick, sour, sad feeling? You feel it again, just a little bit, every time you hear Harry Nilson's Everybody's Talkin'.
That's the way Nom de Guerre's Pains of Youth makes me feel. It's not bad. On the contrary, as with Midnight Cowboy, that's the way you are supposed to feel. (If you haven't seen Midnight Cowboy, stop reading this now, and go out and rent it. This review will still be here when you are done, I promise.)
Pains of Youth was written by Ferdinand Bruckner in the 1920s, and was the start of his very successful career. It's the story of seven young people living in a boarding house in Vienna, just after WWI. As several of them near graduation from medical school, they have to deal with the painful realities of grown-up life in postwar Germany, and the mass of dissapointment and disillusionment the war has left behind. The day before Marie (Davida Bourland) is to graduate from medical school, it is revealed to her by manipulative perpetual student, Freder (Alex Fernandez), and her mentor, Alt (Dan Cole) that her boyfriend, Petrol (Terrance Elton), has fallen in love with another medical student, Irene (Melody Doyle). In her grief, Marie falls into the arms of her roommate, Desiree (Zoe Benston). Throught this all, Freder is performing the ultimate medical experiment -- changing the basic nature of the house's maid, Lucy (Shannon Nelson) from loving innocent to something horrible.
There's no question -- this is a difficult play. Translations are always hard -- the language tends to be stiff and overly formal. Add to that the tiny space Nom de Guerre has chosen to mount this show (barely 25 seats, with only a jagged painted line separating actors from audience), which lets the audience see every single blink of each actor's eye, and you've a recipe for disaster if even a single actor is the slightest bit weak. Fortunately, the acting talent on this stage is remarkable. Despite the difficulty of both the language and material, every actor pulls pulls his or her weight, and then some. Alex Fernandez is a steamroller as Freder, noisily crushing the hopes of the other characters onstage, and forcing the audience to react to his every word. Bourland's Marie is delightfully pathetic, and Nelson sparkles as the simple Lucy, who falls so easily under Freder's spell. As I've said, the rest of the actors move deftly through the thick text in their own right, bringing a painful life and humanity to what is, at base, a long tale of lonliness and loss.
Frankly, there's not much you can say about this show that isn't good. Guillermo Cienfuegos's direction is loose and natural, and works extremely well in the small, audience-close space. Much care has clearly been taken in the collection of props and scenery (right down to the decoration of the bathroom, which is used both by the audience and as a practical space for the actors), and the costuming is, with one exception, excellent. (The exception: the first time I saw Petrol and Irene, because of their matching uniform-like black and white dress, I though they might be maids or servants, like Lucy. After only a few moments, however, it became clear that such was not the case.) The small space does mean that the booth noise, especially as sound queues approach, can be distracting, but it's a minor annoyance, at worst.
My biggest problem is actually with the two intermissions. I know that Bruckner's original called for three acts, with an intermission between each, but I think that, for a modern audience, this structure is unnecessary. The first two acts could be easily presented back-to-back, with a ten to fifteen minute intermission between acts two and three. It would make for a long first act, but not unbearably long, and it would help with the play's continuity. I simply found that the long break between acts 1 & 2 really upsets the audience's concentration. Plus, since the theater has no lobby and sells no concessions, the audience is forced to either sit in their seats, or mill about in the parking lot for, between the two intermissions, nearly 25 minutes, making the evening seem much longer than it actually is. In the end, it's a silly thing to quibble about, but the fact that I list, as my biggest issue, that I did not want a break between acts, is telling of just how good this play is.
Extra intermission aside, this is an excellent play, performed by a troupe of extremely talented actors. If you live in the Los Angeles area, make your way to this little theater in Silverlake. You'll be glad you did.
"Pains of Youth," presented by Nom de Guerre Productions at Paul E. Richards Theater Place, 2902 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake. Nov. 2 - Dec 7, performances Fri&Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 7pm. Call 323.401.6585 for reservations.
Note: my review might appear biased to some. Fact is, I know the folks at Nom de Guerre pretty well. Some are good friends, and my wife is in the show. Even so, I'm a pretty ruthless reviewer and, if I wasn't completely taken with this production (I've seen it twice already), I would, out of friendship, not review it at all. I really liked this show, and everything I've written above is well-deserved.