Playing Against the House

Everybody in Nobody Move is on the move. More specifically, they’re on the run. Gambler Jimmy Luntz is in hiding because he panicked and shot the thug who came to lean on him for bad debts. Booze-soaked Anita has been framed to take the fall for her recent ex-husband’s embezzlement scheme. The two of them meet on the road, and from then on they wait together for their respective trouble to catch up with them.

Catherine Castellanos and Daveed Diggs in Nobody Move. Photo by Pak Han.

That’s more or less the situation in Denis Johnson’s 2009 neo-noir novel, which is more or less recreated in Intersection for the Arts resident theater company Campo Santo’s new play of the same name.  Intersection has also been on the move lately, and Nobody Move is its first production since its recent relocation from the Mission District. The play also marks Campo Santo’s tenth collaboration with longtime playwright-in-residence Johnson and is apparently also the first play ever produced in the Chronicle Building, Intersection’s new home. There’s no theater space as part of the current digs, so Campo Santo is staging this production in a basement conference room, and future Intersection productions will be staged in various spaces around town. The room allows for a spacious if simple set by Tanya Orellana that stands in for various bars, cars and hotel rooms, which is a good thing because the play jumps around a lot.

The dialogue, coming straight from the book, is snappy, and adaptor/director Sean San José has done a decent job of turning some of Johnson’s narration into monologues, but the structure of his adaptation is awfully choppy, making it sometimes unclear what’s going on. (The ending is especially hard to parse.) A bigger problem is the general tone of his staging: the pitch is far too manic, leading to some jarringly cartoonish performances from the generally solid actors in the cast.

The book goes back and forth between Jimmy, Anita and sometimes Gambol’s points of view, but Anita’s part in the play is substantially cut back. She arrives late and disappears for a long stretch of time, and we don’t get much of a peek into her perspective. That’s a shame because Catherine Castellanos’s performance in that role is the best thing in the production. Her Anita is preoccupied and a little hazy with drink, but she also has an easy charisma and a playful sense of adventure when everything in her life is turning to shit.

Daveed Diggs usually plays the lead role of Jimmy Luntz, but when I saw the show Brian M. Rivera took over the part. His fidgety, desperate-to-please twerp shtick as Jimmy is pretty grating, especially the nervous chuckle that punctuates all his dialogue. San José filled in as Rivera’s usual role, Solly Fuchs, the twitchy, resentful gay guy everybody used to call Sally Fuck (not Johnson’s most shining moment of characterization).

Donald E. Lacy Jr. is pretty funny in his first scene as the chatty thug Gambol who comes after Jimmy, but all the growly fuming in his interminable recovery process gets old quickly. Margo Hall’s jumpiness is near-spastic as Mary, the chain-smoking ex-army nurse who tends to Gambol (leading to an overexplained gag about her being a veteran, not a veterinarian). Michael Torres is amusing as a discombobulated sheriff’s deputy and a gruff but good-hearted fugitive biker, Melyssa Jo Kelly has a bland cameo as an FBI agent, and composer Tommy Shepherd has a brief but amiable role as the laid-back loan shark Juarez.

Enough of Johnson’s wry voice makes it into the script for there to be a lot of entertaining moments in the play, but as a two-hour piece unto itself, it falls flat. It’s hysterical in the sense that most people in it seem to be in a constant state of hysteria, but the gamble of making the story more madcap comedy than breezy noir turns out to be an unlucky one.

Nobody Move
Through June 12
Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #53 of 2011, attended June 5.

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