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Double Trouble

Half-Nelson: Samuel Ray Gates and Frank Harts
Ryan Jensen

According to new plays by Sam Marks and Marc Spitz, dissolute young men shouldn't involve themselves with C-list actresses. Or perhaps they should. But they should certainly embark on new careers. Or maybe not. Well, at least both plays agree that involvement with the drug trade can really get a guy into trouble. Possibly.

Nelson, by Marks, concerns the wretched misadventures of a talent agency employee. Nelson (Frank Harts) spends his days stapling, filing, and leaving discomfiting smudges on head shots. He shares an office with Joe (Alexander Alioto), a genial lad who describes himself as "a fucking freak. I'm an awful person. I like to do really bad things to people." Lumbering and slow-witted, Nelson provides a stocky target for Joe's cruelty. "You're a weird guy," Joe gently explains. "You pack nuts for lunch. You kind of smell." Joe's gibes only increase when he learns of Nelson's obsession with a very minor starlet.

Of course, Nelson has a life outside the office, though designer Lex Liang conflates Nelson's workplace and apartment into a single set. When not fantasizing about his lady love, Nelson assists in some amateur moviemaking. A local drug lord has hired Nelson and his friend Charlie (Samuel Ray Gates) to produce a series of videos called Stop Life. In these perverse public-service announcements, which feature shots of crack cocaine and grisly murders, anyone planning to testify in court is instructed, "Stop it or get stopped." As Joe succinctly puts it, "This is ghetto snuff. . . . This is some extremely psychopathic type of shit."

In this Partial Comfort production, directed by Kip Fagan, there is a satisfying inevitability to Nelson's disintegration. But, despite confident performances by the actors, the play doesn't engage emotionally. We can appreciate the crisp rhythm of Marks's short sentences and the briskness of the scene changes, and can even enjoy knowing what must happen next, without ever particularly caring whether it does. The trouble doesn't lie in the unlikable characters—many a playwright has made that a virtue, particularly David Mamet, whom Marks seems to admire. But perhaps Marks coasts too much on his own cleverness, preferring lively dialogue to an examination of the play's more deadly concerns and implications. Though Nelson appears a rather rumpled character, Nelson feels much too slick.

Though it features prostate cancer, an unplanned pregnancy, and the offstage deaths of several puppy dogs, Spitz's Your Face Is a Mess proves to be far sunnier than Nelson. After drug dealer Johnny "Moses" Malone learns that a friend has developed prostate cancer (" Ass cancer on your birthday. Who gave you that?"), Malone becomes concerned with his own fate. He makes a deal with God, in which he promises to give up drinking, smoking, and drug use in return for continued health. His clients don't welcome this change. " I'll gain back all that weight," says soap opera actress Bette. " This is really unprofessional of you!"

But it's Bette who offers Moses a chance at redemption. After a little afternoon delight, she announces she's pregnant, leaving Moses with the prospect of "facing a future where I'm, you know . . . in it. Engaged. Accountable, even." Spitz, a novelist and music journalist, has spent the past 10 years crafting dizzy, downtown-accented farces. Your Face may not be his best (I've a fondness for . . . Worry, Baby and Shyness Is Nice), but it's likely his most mature, offering a vision of a world beyond the blinders of hipsterism. Of course, the cool is still very much in evidence (plenty of nudity and a nifty soundtrack), yet the humaneness that's often lurked on the sidelines of Spitz's plays seems more in evidence here. During a clinic visit, a doctor asks Malone, "Do you use protection?" He replies, "I'm emotionally guarded." Happily, Spitz isn't.


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