Los Angeles, 1994.
It’s the hangover after Morning in America, the moment before tech went boom and a time before anyone told anybody that things would get better.
And rock band Nirvana is coming to town.
Any Generation Xer will feel the sting from the NOLA Project’s production of playwright Christian Durso’s “Shiner.”
While it could use the occasional emotional downshift, it is another strong effort from the NOLA Project, if in a minor key. For those who grew up in the time period, it provides a nostalgic wince of recognition, and for everyone else, it’s a twisted love poem uniquely suited for the theatrical space it inhabits.
Set in a parking lot between the shadow of rising mall and a school as impersonal as Columbine, Durso’s play follows the dysfunctional budding romance of 13-year-olds Margot and Jake, who exist in world where Walkmans still compete for market share.
“Shiner” is a distinctly period piece. The play’s universe is one without Internet culture, set between the Cold War’s end and the Clinton boom years. It exists in a time when lowered expectations found voice in the rage rock that came from Seattle’s music scene.
Filling the Allways Theatre with the pulsing drive of Marcus Davis’ grunge metal-inspired sound design, director Alex Ates leaves the audience little room to catch its breath as he stages the journey of two kindred loners from their initial awkward meeting into Kurt-Cobain-crossed-lovers.
At its best, “Shiner” plays like a chamber piece duet that gives two gifted performers a chance to show off their virtuoso skills.
At its worst, it feels a gimmicky character study, a teenage angst hybrid of the Christian Slater movie “Pump Up The Volume” and Eric Bogosian’s rage-and-riff work.
As social outcasts sharing a love of the smell of Teen Spirit and black eyes, Cecile Monteyne and Alexander Neher, as Margot and Jake respectively, give technically crisp if slightly two-dimensional performances. What the two actors convey perfectly is the fragility of the age.
Both turns capture the overly dramatic sense of stakes all teenagers infuse into their interactions. Both ground their characters completely in a sense of the perpetual present and break your heart by capturing the age’s inability to comprehend very real pain.
Envisioned as a flannel-accessorized goth by costume designer Lindy Bruns, Monteyne achieves a certain know-it-all mania in her portrait of a misfit who uses her knowledge of cutting-edge music trends to compensate for being daddy’s little girl.
As dork turned rebel, Neher follows the exact opposite trajectory as his would-be love. Pay close attention to how he tracks his stammer throughout the show.
The fact the speech impediment causes him pain makes us feel for him all the more.
Working with the confines of scenic designer Frank Oliva’s cigarette-butt-littered world, Ates’ direction is logistically assured. He knows exactly where to place an actor and how to create a variety of images in a limited locale.
Crucially, he moves the proceedings at a tempo worthy of Peal Jam’s “Rearviewmirror.” It’s particularly effective in an early scene when Neher’s Jake attempts to articulate what listening to the music of Nirvana for the first time has done to him.
Combining intoxicating excitement with a little boy’s inability to understand his awakening, Neher soars and crashes before both Monteyne’s and our very eyes as he reaches for a meaning he cannot quite grasp.
It’s the tender moments where distortion occurs for both the director and his collaborators.
Neither actor really navigates the grace notes. An extended scene moving from fight into a declaration of love has no pause, and we miss the sweetness that should make their ultimate promise to each other that much more heartbreaking.
It is a rare thing to say this, but the brevity of the show could have afforded more time for reminders of the fact the two characters are less than a year removed from being sweet kids with a wonderful future ahead of them.
However, it needs to be pointed out that “Shiner” is the first production since “Oregon Trail” that really seems geared to fit the Allways as a space. Both in subject matter and design, “Shiner” resonated in the venue and felt at home both thematically and geographically.
And that’s a note more producers should take.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org