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A CurtainUp Review
It's gonna come for you. It comes for all of us eventually. — Hayley
James Kautz as Adam and Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler, a dark but rowdy new play by Ken Urban, takes place in a small town adjacent to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The time is spring and summer of 1992, when the United States, under the first President Bush, is in a lingering economic recession, and Bill Clinton has just emerged as a serious contender in the coming federal election.

In a program note to this presentation by The Amoralists (in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), author Urban recalls: "The seeds of this play come from the horror show of 9/11. During a time of sadness, I wanted to remember a time when I felt real hope, and for me that was the summer before Bill Clinton's election."

With one exception, the characters are preparing to leave town, high-school diplomas in hand, for new pursuits. The exception is Adam (James Kautz), a slacker who's guilt-ridden about adolescent missteps that marred his relationships with a girlfriend and with his recently deceased father.

The members of Adam's social circle are a mix of public and parochial school kids, naïve in the manner of small-town youth. They express their longing to be done with childhood by smoking grass and cigarettes and talking dirty.

Intricately drawn by the playwright and insightfully interpreted by the Amoralists' ensemble, the characters in Nibbler are focused on questions of still-emerging identity. Most are virgins and not proud of it. Even the more sanguine among them are uneasy about what's ahead, though no one's end-of-childhood angst approaches the intensity of Adam's.

Tara (Rachel Franco) has made the freshman waitlist at Stanford University. She longs to be a student there but, due to sagging self-esteem, questions whether she belongs in such an august environment.

High-school sweethearts Hayley (Elizabeth Lail) and Matt (Spencer Milford) have grown up with greater privilege than their peers. Hayley is set to enroll at Trenton State; she's twisting Tara's arm to join her there so they can be roommates. Matt is headed for fraternity life at LaSalle.

Pete (Sean Patrick Monahan) plans to attend New York University. He's drawn by the school's academic stature but has another motive, possibly still only semi-conscious, for wanting to explore Greenwich Village.

Nibbler is primarily about how, settling into adulthood, we compromise ideals and aspirations and indulge in self-delusion. The friends have all observed their elders, including police officer Dan (Matthew Lawler), the despicable yet sympathetic loser with whom Tara has a summer fling; and they're keenly aware that grown-ups — at least, many of us — trade the candor and exuberance of adolescence for practical pieties and hypocrisy.

Urban has taken an aesthetic risk in attempting to dramatize the notion of post-adolescent transformation with allegory. In Nibbler, visitors from outer space are on the loose in a spooky section of the Pine Barrens. When these creatures attack (or nibble), the victim's outlook and values are altered, for better or worse. It's a change that might occur, in the long run, as a result of worldly experience and passing time; but, in Nibbler, it happens with lightning speed through space-alien intervention.

Having been nibbled, Matt foresees married life with Hayley in a far less romantic, more utilitarian way than before: "[W]e'll tell everyone at cocktail parties [that] we met in high school . . . and every time, they will coo and moo at the sight of our unending love, jealous of our perfect union, completely unaware that hours [before] I was involved in acts of extreme debauchery at a Motel 6 in Pennsauken with a young Asian couple and their lapdog . . . . But see, they'll never know. Because there are things you never talk about."

When the playwright introduces his aliens, rather far into what has been a straightforward comedy-drama, it's not immediately clear that this Asimov-ish stuff can fit harmoniously within the established universe of the play. The company, under the adroit direction of Benjamin Kamine, handles the supernatural side of Nibbler with a light enough touch to ensure that what's at the heart of the play isn't obscured by what's weird, creepy, and gimmicky at its surface. And what's at the heart is Adam's story and Kautz's straightforward, sympathetic performance.

Christina Watanabe (lighting design) and Christian Frederickson (sound design) ease the transition into the episodes of Roswell-like visitation with visual and aural effects that are eerie (as they should be) and also gleefully humorous. The aliens, created by puppet designer Stefano Brancato, are at once amusing and appropriately icky for Urban's narrative conceit.

The actors serve as stagehands, shifting Anshuman Bhatia's flexible scenery for swift transitions from scene to scene; Lux Haac's adaptable costumes permit instantaneous changes of attire, whether off-stage or on. The production's lickety-split momentum leaves little time for spectators to ponder the most far-fetched aspects of Urban's narrative.

The lighting for a number of recent Off-Broadway plays has set a trend of plunging actors' faces into shadow for long periods, often through pages of crucial dialogue. In a production with numerous dark environments, Watanabe's lighting design for Nibbler keeps the players expressions visible even in the dimmest scenes. As a result, the ensemble's well-calibrated work is visible to an extent impossible in a production such as New York Theatre Workshop's Othello (to choose an example from earlier this season) in which Jane Cox's lighting design involved long periods played in minimal illumination and, at times, pitch dark.

There's a good deal of nudity and near nudity in Nibbler. At a moment in Off-Broadway history when a scene or two with naked actors seems to be de rigueur, the instances in this production are noteworthy for not being gratuitous. This is a comedy-drama of vulnerability and longing. The characters' awkward, sometimes desperate stabs at sexual expression, both as written by the playwright and as played by the Amoralist cast, are touching, believable, and a trifle horrifying.

The Amoralists' identify their mission as exploring "complex characters of moral ambiguity, plumbing the depths of the social, political, spiritual and sexual characteristics of human nature," and offering "an honest expression of the American condition." Nibbler accomplishes these solemn-sounding goals with humor, emotion, and creative gusto, plus a catchy finale, written by Urban, that shines a light on the compromises most of us accept in order to stave off the terror of being grown up. "And when you are a person," sings the cast, "You ignore mortality / Because you'd rather forget / This is the only life / That you get."

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Nibbler By Ken Urban
Director: Benjamin Kamine
Cast: Rachel Franco (Tara); James Kautz (Adam); Elizabeth Lail (Hayley); Matthew Lawler (Officer Dan), Spencer Milford (Matt); Sean Patrick Monahan (Pete)
Set Designer: Anshuman Bhatia
Costume Designer: Lux Haac
Puppet Designer: Stefano Brancato
Lighting Designer: Christina Watanbe
Sound Designer: Christian Frederickson
Composer: Ken Urban
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Presented by The Amoralists, in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, btwn Perry and W. 11th
From 2/23/17; opened 2/27/17; closing 3/18/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at February 25th press performance

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