Two or three times over the past few days, I’ve found myself describing the opening scene of The Nest to friends, telling them what a funny, explosive beginning it is to a fascinating play and urging them to call the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for tickets. In this scene, a couple argues at a table in a beautifully appointed bar. Ned (a very funny Kevin Berntson) is a microbiologist; Irene (a spiky, equally funny Andrea Syglowski) teaches women’s studies. He is holding forth about yellow fever, ebola, the great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed millions worldwide. She’s bored. And when he asserts that microbes are more dangerous than war, more threatening than Hitler, she springs into verbal action. It would be a shame to tell you how the argument ends, so I’ll say only that the ending raised the spirits of just about every woman in the house.
The Nest is a feminist play, and for a while you worry about didacticism. Please, you murmur to yourself, don’t let me hear the words “gendered,” “queer theory,” “cross-cultural politics,” “normative” or “constructed” unless someone’s talking about carpentry. But then The Nest seems to give itself a figurative shake and reorient so that it’s less about sexual politics than it is about the loss of beloved hangouts — bars, coffee shops, small-town post offices —where people form a unique community until chain stores and eateries (in this case, a T.G.I. Friday’s) move in. You also sense the ghost of every play ever written about a bunch of misfits and outsiders sharing stories in a bar.
But playwright Theresa Rebeck has tricks up her sleeve. Feminism remains a strong theme here but works in unexpected ways. “I feel like the mandate of any play that takes place in a bar is that it should ramble a bit,” Rebeck told the Denver Center’s John Moore. “I think it needs to be a little humanly reckless.” Accordingly, she’s allowed her characters to wander off now and then and make their own decisions.
That opening quarrel is at the core of the play, a kind of seed from which many highly individual fronds and branches spring.
As soon as Ned and Irene leave, regulars Barry, Patrick and Margo begin discussing who won the argument, and their talk is like a game of post office, in which Ned and Irene’s ideas change alchemically with their passage through each listener’s mind. Patrick — who’s older and brasher — instinctively sides with Ned. Perhaps he’s just a chauvinist, but Brian Dykstra’s faceted performance suggests that that’s not entirely so. Margo’s response is shaped by her experience at work: Smart, sad and bitter in a wonderful performance by Carly Street, she’s tired of being ignored and condescended to. Barry thinks Ned is a doctor, and is knocked out by his presumed authority. Given a grounded comic portrayal by Brian D. Coats, Barry turns out to be a gentle peacemaker, and in many ways the soul of The Nest.
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The Nest itself, with its storied history and stunning fixtures — the inlaid mahogany bar, the huge mirror with its precious antique glass — is an important character, too, and eventually we become privy to the private longings and despairs of the apparently united and happy couple who own it: Lila (Laura Latreille, pleasantly naturalistic) and Nick (played with quiet feeling by David Mason). When modernity enters in the person of an appraiser, a beautifully polished blond woman named Sam (Victoria Mack, appropriately cold and bloodless), it turns out to be far more seductively dishonest than T.G.I. Friday’s.
Rebeck understands the dynamics between men and women. She moves easily between the general and the specific, the petty grievances and the mythic resonances. She shows how contemporary males tend to think in cloudy abstractions while women gravitate toward the concrete, makes fun of male pomposity and admits the possibility of female spite. The Nest alludes to the meme about women needing family, hearth and home while men long for freedom and adventure. “The yin-yang of the planet is off,” Ned remarks: Cue every cowboy movie you’ve ever seen. Still, the script is never simplistic or reductive, but very human, and as fresh and surprising as those quarrelsome opening moments.
The Nest, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through February 21, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.