Holy Cross ...!
Ars Nova, through Oct. 1
511 West 54th Street, Manhattan
To contradict a popular axiom, nostalgia is exactly what it used to be, only more so. VH-1 specials are already memorializing the 1990's, and the next trend on Broadway seems to be musicals based on film comedies of relatively recent vintage: "Honeymoon in Vegas," "The Wedding Singer," "Legally Blonde."
In this foreshortened context, Rob Nash's solo show "Holy Cross ...!," based on his years at a Jesuit high school in Texas in the early 1980's, seems positively quaint, from its borrowing of narrative tropes from the John Hughes canon ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink") to its soundtrack, in which Lionel Richie is as important a marker as the Ramones.
In less skilled hands, this might degenerate into a cheap raid of pop-culture references. To be sure, for anyone raised in the vicinity of the Reagan years, "Holy Cross ... !" thrums plenty of familiar chords (anyone recall the subtle preppy hierarchy of Polo, Izod and Le Tigre?). But Mr. Nash is smarter than your average bare-it-all storyteller or remember-when riffer. The nostalgic signifiers here are mere decoration for an ambitious autobiographical tale with a substance that transcends the age of Cheryl Tiegs and "Purple Rain."
Spanning the four years from freshman "penance hall" to graduation, the play follows three lovable self-proclaimed "nonconformers": Johnny, a sensitive-macho punk; Ben, a flouncing theater queen; and George, a chubby, hapless army brat. Deftly employing the sort of dramatic license allowed only in teenage coming-of-age films, Mr. Nash gives his leads scenes of three-musketeer bonding, of petulant youthful renunciation, of caricatured parental confrontations. They share simultaneous (separate) sexual initiations and bongwater-bubbling reveries. And they all admire an inspirational teacher, Mr. Smith.
In all, the show encompasses a total of 29 characters, and Mr. Nash definitively delineates each, even when they communicate only with a nod or a shrug. Surprisingly, the result is not a manic, effortful show of acting prowess. Under Jeff Calhoun's sure-handed direction, Mr. Nash comes off instead as uncannily mellow and unflappable, moving across a simple stage from scene to cross-cut scene.
Behind him, a forced-perspective installation of a linoleum-tiled classroom (by the scenic designer, Wilson Chin) is occasionally splashed with a scene-setting slide (projection design is by Richard DiBella). Transitions and other narrative sleights of hand are abetted by the lighting design of Jeff Croiter and sound design by Jorge Muelle.
More forceful histrionics might be welcome in a few key scenes of extremity and passion. But by mostly playing it cool, Mr. Nash builds a warm glow of bemused hindsight around his essentially sweet-natured reminiscence.