BWW Review: THE NOSTALGIA WILL EAT ITSELF at Heller Theatre Company
It's rare to discover a new play that's so topical yet surprising that any complete description of its merits might spoil the experience for future audiences.
The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself, by native Tulsan John Fisher and directed by Nick Lutke, doesn't just provide suspense, but also a healthy dose of self-awareness, humor, understated insight, and humility. It is an achievement as the very first play produced as part of Heller Theatre Company's new works initiative called Heller Launchpad. This program is designed to help Oklahoma-based playwrights self-produce a new work. The Heller Launchpad guidelines stipulate that all works in the program must be unpublished, and all actors involved must be paid for their time and talent.
Subtitled as a "horror", The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself is an appropriately bold choice for the inaugural production in the Heller Launchpad program. It's sharp, contemporary, and quite literally bloody. It tells the story of a Tinder date gone awry when old connections come to the surface and a supernatural-cum-allegorical element emerges. The two central players are Bryson and Casey: respectively, a young man whose YouTube videos about gaming placed him on the cusp of niche fame, and a young woman who has been shut out from that world in both subtle and explicit ways. While it first appears that they are just strangers navigating the awkwardness of a first date, the truth is more complicated.
Bryson is played by Thomas Hunt, whose performance perfectly captures how the sheer averageness of a certain kind of person can belie a special brand of evil. Kara Bellavia plays Casey with a quiet power that intensifies over the course of the play. She manages to build up the audience's curiosity during the play's exposition without resorting to stunts or gimmicks, and by the climax, she has them in the palm of her hand. The economical cast of characters is fleshed out by Ben Despain, who is hilarious as a Postmates delivery guy named Gerald, and John Cruncleton III as "Tatertotgamer." This character is an older peer to Bryson who opens the show with a video recording that sets the tone for the play's distinctive combination of ominousness and dry humor.
The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself appropriately thrives on both an appreciation for and rejection of convention. In addition to the play's more contemporary influences, it borrows from Ionesco and Albee's Theatre of the Absurd and even echoes some of Beckett's meditations on power and mortality. It also tackles some more practical questions like the nature of journalism in the age of YouTube, and it does so in a very practical and direct way - as Bryson remarks, "YouTube is journalism? That's depressing."
If you're expecting a moralizing condemnation of gamer culture, you'll get your fix for a few brief moments, but the play is very self-aware about the dangers of pontificating: immediately after Casey eviscerates Bryson and calls him a "sniveling gatekeeper" and a "baby with a toy," he congratulates her on her "monologuing." This is mirrored in other moments in the play in which moments of exaggerated tension are skillfully broken with humor, and it's a testament to both the playwright's insight and the cast's savvy.
In the course of a single act, The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself manages to touch on issues of misogyny, identity, desire, and the nature of success. It is precise enough to be satisfying and memorable as a piece of entertainment but abstract enough to actually tackle the big questions at hand. What it ultimately captures best is the self-destructive nature of dwelling in a child's fantasy world far into adulthood.
You do not want to miss this exciting first production in the Heller Launchpad program. The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself is playing at the Nightingale Theatre for two more weekends. The performances are on the 24th, 25th, the 31st, and February 1st at 8pm, and you can buy tickets here.