Uncle Nicky begins with the title character sitting alone in a pool of red light, the sound of his Vietnam past in his ears. It ends as he runs out to confront police at gunpoint and commit "suicide by cop," a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Nicky spirals from A to Z, sometimes with economy, sometimes with obvious foreshadows, but always with empathy for its protagonist, despite his crusty personality and vicious ways. This production did justice to the play is, as much by the deeply emotional and physical performance of Martin Alvin as Nicky than any other element. He showed warts and all (mostly warts) in excruciating detail. When he mutely clawed at the walls in frustration, it was a measure of his success that he didn't appear to be chewing the scenery.
The play withholds and then finally explains how Nicky got that way: how he screwed his brother's wife; his survivor guilt from Vietnam, where his brother and buddies perished; even how he was gang-raped in prison. These details all explain why he beats up his nephew's girlfriend's Asian friend. (The nephew is concerned that the woman is going to have sex with the Asian friend, so Nicky lures the man to a rendezvous and beats him up. The man calls the police, thereby threatening Nicky with another jail term. Ironically, the man turns out to be gay; the nephew turns out to be Nicky's son.) The details are sometimes too obvious, the explanations too pat, and the dramaturgy too mechanical (in particular the revelation that the nephew is really a son). On the positive side, Bartleby has a flawless ear for low-class dialog (the play is set in Nicky's dive of a bar in Elmhurst, Queens).
The other performances ranged from sterling to supporting. Robert Pannullo as Nicky's wartime buddy Dominick, literally damaged in the head (so confused he doesn't even know he's shit his pants), offered much-needed comic relief in a touching and detailed portrayal. Jane Petrov as Leslie, the girlfriend, succeeded in an essentially unsympathetic character who is really just another victim. Debra Kay Anderson, as Nicky's ex-wife, Rose, took a low-key approach in a part that perhaps could have yielded more comedy or pathos. Christopher Lee, as the nephew, Joey, had the unfortunate task of playing a weak character without seeming like a weak actor, though showing more spunk might have upset the focus on Nicky and betrayed the text. Richard Chew, in a brief turn as the obtusely intelligent beat-down victim, cheefully went to his fate.
The set had lots of naturalistic detail; Robert Pannullo went to a lot of trouble with the doorways and neon signs. Bernie Bosio's lighting (from an exceptionally high, for Off-Off-Broadway, grid) effectively captured the depressing interior and made spooky use of red specials for the Vietnam flashbacks, but could have used some "back lighting" (aimed from upstage) to lend depth and help out the actors. Costumes were apparently street, but well-chosen, particularly Rose's blowsy yellow-print dress and Dominick's colorful shirt.
Director Jason Parker Green, in a debut effort, made the most of all the stage areas and can take credit for keeping the audience focused on the business at hand, which was very serious indeed.
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Copyright 2001 John Chatterton