The alt-kids aren’t alright in Brett Neveu’s coming-of-middle-age comedy.
How has Generation X’s teen spirit held up over the past twenty years? Depends on what you mean by “held up.”
Muddy angst-rock, for one, evolved and cleaned up into polished dance beats. ESPN’s once-heralded X-Games now hosts video game tournaments. Kid Rock, a rapper once seen on tape getting fellatio alongside a singer from Creed (arguably one of the most ’90s transgressions possible), today gives interviews like he’s Clint Eastwood.
Things aren’t much brighter for the counterculture hangers-on in Brett Neveu’s dark comedy about a group of motocross fans reuniting at a summer competition. Five friends’ shared love for dirt bikes and light drug use holds on strong, even while the rebels themselves—now pushing 40—fall apart.
Or burn, more specifically, as is the case for Jason (Colby Sellers), an unemployed schlub who starts off the weekend by landing short over a bonfire jump. It’s the first in a series of miscalculations on a nostalgia trip to hell joined by Shane (Bries Vannon), a child caseworker emotionally recovering from an on-the-job accident, Greg (Joe McCauley), a once-legendary bike-riding Ice Man of sorts, and Bill (Joseph Stearns), who’s accompanied by his 19-year-old sexual midlife crisis, Jana (Samantha Beach).
Though the subject matter is ripe with potential, especially amongst a theater community with plenty of members who identify with the age-set depicted, not much feels overly personal or new in Brant Russell’s U.S. premiere for Signal Ensemble Theatre; as is the case with most works about growing older and faded glory, it’s fairly easy to see what bittersweet realizations are going to be made long before the characters make them.
There are plenty of rituals, chants and inside jokes to let us know these guys are close, but it’s here the the dialogue feels the least natural. Even during the moments where the gang bonds, it’s clear any levity is just being built up as collateral for the pain to follow.
More innovative is Neveu’s depiction of Greg’s pregnant wife, Jen (Sarah Gitenstein). Seen early sniping at her husband and dismissing “his” choice to break with tradition and leave the bike at home, it’s easy to view her as the adult wet-blanket and antagonist. That simple setup is shed quickly for a more nuanced characterization, which Gitenstein renders wholly and convincingly. She’s a voice of reason, both for and against her own better judgement.
Likewise, having a 19-year-old fifth-wheel creates a dissonance that unlocks much of Red Bud’s dramatic potential. In one exceptional and subtle scene, Jana goes off on the sort of morbid philosophical tangent only a college student could enjoy—everyone else in the room has too much context to play along at her distance. Once the camp fire is set, the beers are cracked open and the pot gets passed around, Neveu feels most in his element, as each chemical substance and conversation subject take effect on one another. One scene reminded me very much of twentyone, another Neveu drama that unfolds almost voyeuristically in a party scene.
It’s one of the reasons the finale feels so tacked-on. Though not enough to diminish the scene work before it, Neveu’s explosive climax works against the pace and themes leading up to it. After all, it’s an explosion of clarity the existentially afflicted crave—in reality personalities change slowly, unceremoniously, with a whimper.
Signal Ensemble Theatre. By Brett Neveu. Directed by Brant Russell. With Samantha Beach, Sarah Gitenstein, Joe McCauley, Colby Sellers, Joseph Stearns, Bries Vannon. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.