Nibbler @ Rattlestick
The eponymous Nibbler, of The Amoralists’ world premiere presentation, running at Rattlestick through March 18, strikes when you’re about to have your first true sexual encounter. Its alien touch fast forwards the personal growth that will ultimately stem from that experience, as if you learn everything you need to know about your adult identity in that defining moment. If only it were that simple.
This explanation of Nibbler’s alien presence is only gradually revealed over the course of the play, and I appreciated the mysterious, comical, sci-fi discovery process. Effects like glowing green lights off stage and wavering puppet arms built a satisfying psychological suspense, ultimately released when we see the whole puppet and realize Nibbler is harmless. Director Benjamin Kamine manipulates your emotions, teetering on the edge of humor and fear, joy and despair, perfectly suspending the audience in the impossible equilibrium that is the summer after your senior year of high school.
The play appears to be autobiographical, with the last projected image depicting the real life group of teens on which the characters were modeled. Playwright Ken Urban writes in the program note:
“The seeds of this play come from the horror show of 9/11. During a time of absolute sadness, I wanted to remember a time when I felt real hope, and for me that was the summer before Bill Clinton’s election. While there has been the odd tinkering and a failed experiment or two, the core of this play has not changed since that time. Given recent catastrophic events, the play might feel eerily prophetic now that the extreme is our new ‘normal.’”
The historical remove of a couple decades feels almost overwhelmingly nostalgic. Full disclosure: I was a babe in arms when Clinton took office, but the 90s grunge on stage still resonated powerfully with me, as a bygone era that still felt familiar and relatable. The ensemble of actors conveyed the bouncy, unpredictable energy of teenagers, while manipulating rapid-fire dialogue. Lines like, “Have you seen Hillary Clinton? She’s trouble,” were especially poignant.
One particularly early-90s theme was the emergence of irony, which was searingly, uncomfortably probed in this friend group’s conversations. They played a game in which one friend was asked to “Tell me something honest.” They would then reveal one of their deepest personal fantasies (e.g. how they wanted to kill their sister, how they wanted to kill themselves, how they feared no one would ever have sex with them). And the response from the chorus of friends was, inevitably, “Way too sincere, man, way too sincere!”
In a generational moment where we trade in irony, and where our most sincere expressions are often sarcastic, it felt like time travel to revisit the origins of this type of conversation, back when we still revealed ourselves, and were just beginning to mask that desire under a self-deprecating veil of humor. Nibbler perfectly encapsulates that part of your life before you’ve defined yourself, where you have all the potential and none of the answers, and are anxiously awaiting the truth of your future to strike you like a lightning bolt, illuminating the path forward. One of my favorite lines was “maudlin as fuck in Medford,” since it so poetically consummates the adolescent intelligence, knowing and employing an SAT word like “maudlin,” but also capturing that uncomfortable in-between period, feeling too big for the past and too small for the future.
Nibbler provides an extremely sympathetic look at this period in a young adult’s life, accounting for the hypocrisy of the “purity” that is preached to teenagers, and the fact that our desires to explore our sexuality and our drug tolerance and our identities aren’t bad, just new, since grown-ups share that same curiosity. The idea that growing up means never sharing everything is repeated several times throughout the play, and it seems heartbreakingly sad (in its truth) that part of becoming an adult is learning to tuck certain parts of yourself away, only sharing what is appropriate or serviceable.
Moreover, Nibbler is an anthem for the artsy kids out there, demonstrating that the nerds are so much more interesting than the cookie cutter perfect kids. While we are all exploring the same impulses, it is infinitely more satisfying to attempt a unique expression of our values and beliefs than to adopt the identity and uniform of a tribe of “coolness.” Adam, the only character who does not go to college, is notably the most romantically/sexually pursued member of the friend group. His non-conforming behavior, carving out his own path, is both troubling and alluring. While you’re concerned he might kill himself, you also understand why everyone wants to be close to him, for his stable apathy.
A friend of mine often references an article he read about how people tend to order the same thing at a restaurant the older they get, because our memory clings to our first impression of a dish or an experience as the best, the ultimate truth, regardless of later (potentially contradictory) evidence. This anecdote rang true for me watching Nibbler, prizing the nostalgia of adolescent perception over later experience. Nibbler featured countless examples of teenage vulnerability and spontaneity (often involving literal or figurative nudity), which we can imagine shaped these characters’ tendencies in their adult lives. Although immature experience certainly doesn’t determine the course of a life, it registers as an irrefutable impression of what is possible, how we define ourselves, and what we stake our lives on.