Junior Blues: A Bullet Train Through Adolescence
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 10, 1999
Junior Blues: A Bullet Train Through Adolescence
The Vortex, through September 19
Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min
Teens today face a host of major challenges: violence in the schools, teen parenthood, AIDS, Britney Spears. Well, the challenges will only get bigger 15 years down the road, if Rob Nash is any prophet. The gifted writer-actor behind the "Holy Cross Quadrilogy," a quartet of stage comedies that tracks three friends through four years at a Catholic high school in Houston, has set that series' third installment in the years 2013 and 2014. In it, not only do the teens of tomorrow still have to deal with sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies, they also must contend with life during wartime (a full-fledged conflict in the Middle East), easily accessible explosives, ubiquitous Southwestern Bell video pins, mutant fast food like "jambalayaritos," and the era's dominant musical form, fag rock. Does that sound like progress for adolescence?
But then, things may not be as bad as they first appear. While his future scenario of an Amy Carter presidency and chart-topping records titled Crack Whore and Barebackin' may make us cringe (even as it makes us laugh), Nash is basically just extrapolating the culture a bit, finding those ideas that might still seem outlandish by current standards but which are plausible given the seismic shifts our society can make over a decade and a half. Fag rock is the next generation's gangsta rap: the sound of an abused, alienated segment of society screaming its truths as loudly and bluntly as it can -- the sound of it crude and scary to most anybody out of their teens. Scratch the surface of Nash's "future" and you see the present -- and the past, too. The technology changes, the trappings of the culture change, but there's always the music that the kids adore that the old folks can't stand, the language of youth that shocks the senior generation, the substances forbidden by adults that young people still manage to get hold of and experiment with anyway, the young's rejections of their elders' values. It's always about rebellion, it's always about testing the limits, it's always about finding one's identity.
With this third installment, it's clearer than ever that Nash is giving his audiences an epic overview of American adolescence from the Atomic Age onward. His shifts in time -- from 1981-82 in Freshman Years Sucks to 1992-93 in Sophomore Slump to 2013-14 in Junior Blues to 1954-55 in the still-to-come Senioritis -- while preserving the same narrative throughout offers a sense that, despite the distinctive character of each decade or generation, the essential experience of American youth, of being a teen, of making the passage from childhood to adulthood, has been constant since World War II ended. Nash's three heroes -- Ben, George, and Johnny -- are Everyteens, young people awakening to their individuality, to their sexuality, to their independence, to their sense of what love means, what friendship is, what they believe in, what they stand for, what counts.
Of course, the beauty of Nash's "Quadrilogy" is that it doesn't play like a socio-cultural thesis. Not in the least. Instead, it's a comic escapade, with a teeming cast of richly detailed, delightfully familiar, appealing characters engaged in a breakneck series of amusing rites of passage and affecting trials of life; it's a bullet train soap opera, with Nash the writer compressing a year's worth of teen angst and activity into an hour and Nash the actor tossing it off -- dozens of characters at a time -- at a breathless pace. We get absorbed in the stories -- who's in trouble at school, who's in trouble at home, who's on the outs with whom, who's sleeping with whom -- and are drawn along by the sheer force of Nash's narrative. But we always get more out of it than a mainline fix of pure plot progression; every step of the way, Nash rewards us with his keen sense of human folly, the absurd lengths to which we'll go to save face, to look cool, to fit in. He gets that way we'll primp in a mirror and think we look so-o-o good, the way we'll pepper a speech with expletives and act like that makes our point more intelligently, the way we'll resort to the most ludicrous boasts, even if it's as inane as Norman Normal's "I could kill you right now if I wanted to. I could." In both text and gesture, Nash consistently captures us at our most ridiculous and reflects it back at us so we have to laugh.
It's customary now in reviews of Nash's one-man, multiple-character productions to praise his ability to draw characters in a signature line or a few simple broad gestural strokes, and there's a reason for that: He truly is good at it. Arms akimbo, lips pursed, and a pronounced limp, and he gives us a hilariously gruff teacher. Eyebrows low, voice deep and scratchy, posture a little loose, and he creates a slightly insecure high school rebel. Nash works this simple theatrical magic with literally dozens of characters, and his surety in presenting them, even for just a second at a time, is amazing.
In fact, Nash's surety in the piece as a whole -- in the writing and the characterization and the delivery -- is uncanny. He is at a level where he can create a "cinematic" montage, cutting from one scene to another and back again until both scenes climax, and it plays as smoothly and effectively as if it were filmed.
But the fact that it isn't filmed, the fact that it is one man, deftly realizing character after character with only his voice, posture, and timing, makes the scene even more involving than if we were to see it on a screen. We are closer to it, physically and emotionally. We are contributing to the imagining of it. Like Nash's take on American adolescence, there is a timeless quality to the experience, one we can feel no matter what generation we belong to. And it works on us. Well, I know it worked on me. I can hardly wait to see what becomes of Ben, George, and Johnny their senior year.