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A CurtainUp LA Review
Nikki & Bobby

By David Lohrey

Theatregoers in this town don't have it easy. We are told again and again how much theatre there is (by counting the theatres), yet in our hearts we know good theatre is hard to come by, and most of it is still from out of town. Then, again, there are always those little gems out there, tucked away in out of the way places. One such lies glistening at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood. Hollywood: the name itself is enough to make one swoon. What a marvelously appropriate location for the West Coast premiere of Nikki and Bobby, a new play written and directed by Mark Leonard. It is set in a sleazy flop-house on 42nd Street in New York City in 1979, but it feels right at home in today's Hollywood.

The evening began to show promise from the moment Rob Mulholland's seedy set came into view, embodying the perfect combination of pretension and tackiness. It's all in the little touches, and what a joy it is to see perfection.

Of course, the relationship between a white southern deputy sheriff (Bobby) and a black transvestite prostitute (Nikki) may on the face of it seem improbable. Yet, in terms of dramatic pedigree, the play's central conflict echoes an entire line of gothic clashes from Streetcar Named Desire and Sunset Boulevard to Midnight Cowboy and Six Degrees of Separation. Beauty and the Beast?

Nikki and Bobby would be dull clichés indeed were it not for the precision of Mr. Leonard's writing and the confidence of his direction. Michael Matts as Nikki puts in an exquisitely refined performance as the primping drag queen, who sings Sinatra while concealing a switchblade in his bra. Matts delivers Nikki's perhaps too articulate street patter with rapid-fire clarity, and tosses out threats that are both hilarious and terrifying.

Bobby (J.D. Evermore), on the other hand, inhabits a world that is the inverse of Nikki's. To Nikki's positive charge, Bobby runs somewhere between negative and non-existent. Although played well by Evermore, who bears a resemblance to a young Jon Voight, his choices make low-key take on a new meaning. While this works well to convey his character's country-boy manners and naïveté, it presents problems. As a sexual passive, for example, one wonders what Bobby is doing with a female impersonator. And this is not just a matter of Evermore's acting since the script calls for Bobby's refusal to perform the active partner's role despite Nikki's repeated requests. As a result, while Leonard's second act exposition focuses on what causes Bobby and Nikki's break-up, it fails to satisfy an audience still waiting to find out what attracted them to each other in the first place.

Nonetheless, this failure to explain Nikki and Bobby's initial attraction does not keep us from wanting to see more. On the contrary. The writing is strong enough to draw one in scene by scene. What raises the spectacle to a higher level is the author's use of Rashomon-like witnesses who punctuate the action with pithy monologues explaining the how and why of Nikki and Bobby's relationship. We quickly learn that they are both reliable and unreliable witnesses who know everything except what is really happened.

Again, the writing works, supplying regional turns-of-phrase to characters as disparate as Bobby's Mississippi wife (Melanie Rockwell), a prostitute friend of Nikki's (Suzanne Whang), the New York hotel clerk (Jim Dowd), Bobby's friend from New York (Bill Hagy), and finally a family member from down south (Tom Jacobs). Each monologue does the trick by drawing the audience in, while opening the play out. Miraculously, the acting is uniformly good and twice it is nothing less than inspired (Malanie Rockwell and Suzanne Whang delivered their lines with breathtaking conviction.) The show may have some explaining to do, but its triumph is that everyone leaves the theatre begging for more.

Playwright: Mark Leonard
Directed by Mark Leonard
Cast (in alphabetical order): Jim Dowd, J.D. Evermore, Bill Hagy, Tom Jacobs. Michael Matts, Melanie Rockwell, Suzanne Whang
Set Design: Rob Mulholland
Scenic Artist: Tom Brown
Costume Design: Raymond McNeill
Lighting Design: Richard Hellstern
Sound Design: Jim Witoszynski
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission
The Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, Ca. Phone: (323) 655-TKYS. Opened September 1, through October 8, 2000.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on 9/17/00 performance.

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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