This review is an experiment, a daring cutting-edge venture. To participate you have options:
A) Read the entire review as written.
B) Read only the plain-type paragraphs for a rave.
C) Read only the italicized paragraphs for a pan.
D) Read any of the paragraphs you want, in any order, to create your own unique review experience.
Please put on your lab coat and safety goggles. Ready? Here goes:
Did you ever notice that every driver who drives faster than you is a reckless jerk, and that every driver who drives slower than you is an ignorant pus-wad? That format is the core of observational humor, and it’s how the fascinating devised play, Nick&Jeremy, is structured.
This show, now at Cleveland Public Theatre and co-produced by Theater Ninjas, is like high-level observational humor without the punch lines. Sure, there are some occasional laughs, but many of the philosophical queries (Who am I? How long can you remember the universe is inside your head?) come across as blindingly sophomoric.
Created and performed by the eponymous Nick Riley and Jeremy Paul, the evening is a casual assemblage of thoughts and musings (ie. Did you ever have the urge, while standing on a high bridge, to throw yourself off? Did you ever want to write a letter to your younger self?). These forays try to gently pry apart the differences between imagination and reality. between personal awareness and universal interconnectedness.
Philosophy is fine, as far as it goes. But there’s a reason plays by real philosophers, such as Sartre and Camus, feature actual characters and real (if sometimes obscure) plot lines. The theatrical experience demands genuine characters and conflict, not just two guys hanging out who get along great and, you know, totally get where the other is coming from.
By avoiding the traditional trap of crafting two fully formed characters, Paul and Riley are able to isolate particular queries without the additional baggage of backstory and exposition. Utilizing two turntables for incidental music, a mic, and a drumset, the two performers weave various layers of sound into their mystical mix.
In the absence of conflict, N&J gives us the two guys sitting at a coffee shop table asking each other the kind of questions over-caffeinated, self-involved young dudes contemplate (with the notable absence of sex talk). Then they take turns expounding on microscopic “wonders,” such as somehow intuiting a distant friend is calling when the phone rings. Golly, Mr. Wizard! How did that happen??
This compelling ride begins and ends with the performers interacting with the audience, shaking hands and sharing thoughts. These moments allow the play to take off and land in a smooth and less artificial way than most plays, providing a seamless entry and exit from the heady, intellectually challenging material.
By utilizing some grip-and grin activity before and after the show, the performers pretend they’re not really different than the audience when, in fact, they are. This is the reverse of audience participation and leads to some cornball exchanges that feel excruciating (“And where did you come from tonight? Akron? Wow.”).
So, does Nick&Jeremy succeed in exploring the differences between consciousness and reality? That is hardly the right question. Better to ask if this show expands your ability to see inside yourself, and outside yourself into the greater world, with a new sense of specificity and curiosity. And the answer to that question is a definitive yes.
Since Nick&Jeremy doesn’t provide characters who have anything at stake, other than a poorly brewed espresso, the audience feels no need to involve itself in this enterprise. And so it ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with a shrug.
This review experiment is now concluded. On your way out, please put your coat and goggles in the proper bins for sterilizing. And should you find yourself vexed that this review never adopted a definitive point of view…well, yeah.
Nick & Jeremy
Through April 13 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727