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Nick and Zoe
by Liz Baudler
2018-09-12

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Author: Daniel Talbott

At: McKaw Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. Tickets: thesideproject.net, $15-20 . Runs through: Sept. 29

Radical truth is a tempting concept, in both life and art.

What if you could just say whatever you're thinking, all the time? For instance, on the first day of class, you tell your NYU professor of radical truth how much you want to fuck her and how exactly you would do so? According to the director's note, the existence of said truth, alongside an examination of toxic masculinity and vulnerability, are subjects that playwright Daniel Talbott aims to attack in a 50-minute four-scene two-person play.

Titular characters Nick and Zoe meet in the aforementioned radical-truth seminar. The show's very first lines find Nick, in response to some offstage question, confessing in sickening detail to being his babysitter's sexual violation when he was 11. Meanwhile, Zoe has to cop to who in class she'd most like to dance with. Spoiler alert: She chooses Nick. They get drunk in Nick's apartment: They reveal, obviously, that they want to have sex. And in that timeworn tale, rich girl with rich boyfriend screws crude scholarship boy behind rich boyfriend's back until—gasp!—something terrible happens.

Here is some radical truth: Nick is an asshole, and not a compelling one. The "something terrible" is both gratuitous and almost entirely his own fault. Except it might not be; maybe it's Zoe fault all along! Zoe is brittle, at times emotional, but ultimately unrevealing, or possibly even unexplored, which makes her motivations seem petty, which given how events transpire, is a bad thing.

While every playwright should ideally strive for vividness of language and singularity of character, a relationship play could potentially succeed if structure itself were the focus, if conflict became art by unique telling. But Nick and Zoe is, unfortunately, a pretty straightforward play. And it sounds like it was penned by an 18-year-old undergrad who just read Streetcar and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and thought, "Ooh, let me try!" We probably know this couple, sure, but that doesn't mean we should see them on stage for 50 minutes.

Say this is a play about an idea, rather than a relationship. Should one remove radical truth as the excuse for Nick's actions, he's still merely an impulsive asshole. So what purpose does that excuse serve? Even if Talbott's trying to illustrate the toxic variety of masculinity, we don't see enough textual evidence to know that that's really what's going on with Nick: we only see him in competition with one other, very generic and entirely offstage man. We have far more evidence to see him as a traumatized abuse victim. But that's a more complicated story, and we only have 50 minutes.

Yet Andrew Rathgeber and Josephine Longo deliver their lines with vigor, particularly Rathgeber as Nick, that tormented soul. They convey that terrible physical tension of a couple in their worst fights, Rathgerber in one corner, Longo balled up in another.

One wishes cast and crew's skills could be employed in the service of a piece less self-important and better done. Even radical truth itself is a fine idea—when it imbues a thoughtful narrative rather than remaining a shallow, inciting incident.


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