Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana is essentially a one-joke play. Fortunately, the joke is so savage, and it's taken to such outrageous and unthinkable lengths, that the result is a startling and original evening of theater. It doesn't hurt that the dialogue is always inventive and sometimes downright lunatic, or that the actors at Germinal Stage Denver give a go-for-broke, balls-out (ahem) performance.
Kopit is the author of some hilariously absurdist '60s plays, including Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, in which Mamma is a kind of human praying mantis. He also created Wings, a touching account of a woman's experience of having a stroke, and the book for the musical Nine, currently enjoying a revival in New York. Heaven knows what happened to Kopit in Hollywood, where he wrote scripts for several television miniseries, but the experience must have been a bitter one. Nirvana is about three independent producers trying to get a film project off the ground. Al is played by Michael Leopard with a German accent that both fractures and comments on American vernacular while accentuating his constant flow of obscenities ("fucking" becomes "focking" or "foocking" to terrific comic effect). With the help of his venal little bimbo, Lou (Gia Mora Chinisci), Al has decided to entice a onetime colleague, Jerry (Ed Baierlein), into taking on a project. Jerry is wary: Al derailed his career once before, and his wife committed suicide because of it. Besides, at the play's opening, he's reasonably contented, or at least getting by, making educational films.
One of the most successful aspects of the Germinal production lies in the casting of Al and Jerry. Leopard and Baierlein look somewhat alike: stocky, middle-aged men -- Leopard thicker and Baierlein thinner -- with shaved heads. Each wears sandals, shorts, a bright shirt and an arsenal of gold neck chains, courtesy of costumer Sallie Diamond. Their mannerisms differ, but in many ways, Jerry is a funhouse-mirror image of Al; he's just a touch more innocent. The actors' speech patterns mesh hilariously, sometimes contrasting and sometimes blending, and Kopit has provided a host of insane little verbal canters for the two of them.
Al and Lou set the bait. Jerry rises to it. They demand proof of his commitment to the project. He provides it. They demand further proof. Every assurance he gives is more damaging and demeaning to him than the one before.
The project that's causing all this excitement involves a major rock icon who has penned her life story and is willing to star in it. Because she doesn't actually remember anything about her life (too many drugs), she's copied Melville's Moby Dick down, pretty much word for word -- except that she's substituted her own name, Nirvana, for Ahab's, and the whale Moby Dick has become a monstrous white cock.
In the second act, Nirvana appears, a crudely vital woman who can switch at will from ditzy airhead to deep-voiced dominatrix. She twists poor Jerry this way and that before completing his destruction.
The acting is very strong. Baierlein and Leopard are terrific individually, and a revelation together. Marta Barnard's rendition of the monstrous Nirvana rivets the audience's attention. She's full of life and energy, and she displays every one of the character's unnerving contradictions with absolute relish. You almost get dizzy trying to figure out who she really is and exactly what she's doing. I thought Gia Mora Chinisci did a bit too much posing around as Lou. It's hard to play characters as absurd as these, but somehow the other three seemed more grounded -- or perhaps the word is "invested" -- in their insanity. Of course, Lou is a far cooler little number, so perhaps the posing can be justified. Tad Baierlein, Ed and Sallie Diamond's son, has a tiny role as Al's fake Mexican servant, Ramon. As he sets down bowl after bowl of soup, you catch a glimpse of the sly humor his mother often brings to her roles.
Even within its own ridiculous parameters, Road to Nirvana doesn't quite make sense. Al and Jerry are too old and washed up to find any kind of success in today's Hollywood; there's no reason on earth that a major rock star would choose them as collaborators. Except, of course, for the pleasure of destroying them. But surely she could find bigger fish to disembowel. I'm not sure how much of what I saw at Germinal represents Kopit's vision and how much director Ed Baierlein's, but it seemed to me that Al, at least, would be a sharper dresser: His clothes might be vulgar, but they'd be costlier and less wrinkled. Nirvana's costume is wild and funny but also obviously cheap. It left me wondering whether she was really supposed to be a major star or some kind of has-been or wannabe. Certainly, her home is as eccentrically and expensively equipped as Michael Jackson's, though she goes for sadistic rather than faux-innocent accoutrements.
But on a metaphorical level, the play works completely. (There's a lot of talk about metaphor when Al urges Jerry to do unspeakable things to prove his loyalty; the joke is that those things are not metaphorical, but very, very literal.) In fact -- vicious as it is -- Nirvana might be too tame a representation of the odd mixture of violence, rage and imbecility that fills movie and television screens these days. And you don't have to think more than a few seconds to come up with some real-life stars as airheaded, ego-inflated and destructive as the horrendous Nirvana.
Germinal has brought a lot of genuinely interesting work to this area -- plays you're unlikely to see on any other Denver stage. Road to Nirvana provides a joltingly iconoclastic view of Hollywood, staged with humor, guts and intelligence. I think I can guarantee that you'll laugh out loud. When you're not wincing.
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