The Holy Cross Quadrilogy

Local Arts Reviews


The Holy Cross Quadrilogy: BACK TO CLASS WITH A CLASS ACT

The Vortex,

through December 31

Running Time: 2 hrs, 40 min

Rare is the individual who would willingly return to high school. For the vast majority of us, once is enough to suffer through that singularly hellish incubator of adolescent insecurity, sexual frustration, and societal alienation, to run that peculiar gauntlet of small-minded authority figures, merciless bullies, and impenetrable cliques. Even for the lucky ones whose high school years were relatively enjoyable, there were enough moments of humiliation and personal trauma, enough shocks to the system, to make them just as happy never to return. What a wonder, then, is Rob Nash. He's not only willingly gone back to high school himself, but he's persuaded thousands of otherwise wary high school escapees to go back and relive every one of those painfully formative years -- and enjoy them!

Through his Holy Cross Quadrilogy, a quartet of stage comedies that tracks three friends through four years at a Catholic high school in Houston, the gifted writer and performer takes us back to that period of life, recreating it in all its cruelty and angst, all the uncertainty and agitation and yearning that we remember all too well, but also blessing it with an abundance of good humor and compassion for the unlucky teens who must endure it. Nash possesses a keen sense of human folly and of the transformative quality of adolescence, so that while he catalogues every paralyzing doubt and agonizing rejection with excruciating accuracy, he does so with a mind toward showing us how much absurdity is laced into all that torture and how all that pain ultimately shapes the adults those teens become. This is the time of discovery, of learning who we are, where we want to go, what we choose to make of our lives. Seen from that perspective, with a wry smile and an open heart, it's easy to revisit and even embrace that difficult time.

Previously, Nash took us back to high school one year at a time, in individual plays that corresponded to each of high school's four years: Freshman Year Sucks!, Sophomore Slump, Junior Blues, and Senioritis. Now, with the quartet completed, he is attempting to present them all in a single evening's performance. It's a gutsy move, not only because of the demands it makes on Nash -- he plays all the parts in all the shows, more than 40 characters total, and switches from character to character at a breathless pace -- but because of the time shifts that Nash has structured into the piece: The Quadrilogy begins with Freshman Year in 1981-82, then jumps to 1992-93 for Sophomore Slump, then to 2013-14 for Junior Blues, then backs up to 1954-55 for Senioritis. When Nash presented each play separately, the changes in setting were apparent but not jarring; the lapse in time between performances helped each work stand independently and feel like it was its own story within a larger framework. The pieces came to feel almost like peeks into alternate universes, where the same story unfolds under slightly different circumstances. Setting them back to back in one performance heightens the sense of the plays as a single narrative, making the time shifts potentially more disruptive to the story's flow.

Having seen all four parts of the Holy Cross Quadrilogy before and being well-prepared for the shifts in period, I'm not the best person to say that the time jumps aren't at all disruptive in this streamlined presentation, but they didn't feel that way. They came off more like the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day in the Bill Murray film: parts of the same story but told with minor variations. As with that movie, the concept is pretty easy to tune into, and once you do, you start looking for and enjoying the slight differences from version to version. The thing is, Nash establishes his characters so clearly, with such distinctive voices and simple broad physical strokes, and is so consistent in his presentation of them that we can identify them in wildly varying moods and situations. The different decades that Nash employs become simply one more variant, other background details against which they're set.

However, while the time shifts may not be significant in terms of our being able to follow the narrative, they are quite significant where the work's greater purpose is concerned. As I've noted before, they allow Nash to give his audiences an epic overview of American adolescence from the Atomic Age onward. He can share with them the distinctive character of certain decades or generations -- the repressive conformity of the Fifites, say, or the grungey nihilism of the Nineties -- and show that the essential experience of American youth, of the passage from childhood to adulthood, has been largely constant since the end of World War II and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The trio at the heart of the story -- the social misfits Ben, George, and Johnny -- are Everyteens, young people experiencing those universal awakenings of self, of individuality, of purpose, of direction, that occur in one's teens.

The universality of Nash's story is clearer than ever in the current presentation. The rapid juxtaposition of cultural trappings -- the slang, the attitudes, the music, the technology -- provide a high contrast to the essential stability of the characters. We can see how they hew to their own paths no matter which way the societal winds are blowing. Similarly, our sense of the various storylines that Nash has threaded through all four plays is enhanced as well. The impact of this character's pregnancy or that character's illness remains vivid when we're not six months or a year between installments.

If anything suffers in this presentation, it's the fullness of the story. Before, Nash would take an hour to an hour and a half to tell each tale, and while even that is quick by theatrical standards, his lightning pace and the deft sound design of Brad Hastings and Obediah Eaves allowed him to fill that time with all sorts of wonderful details about the characters and their times. In order to fit all four shows into one manageable evening, Nash has trimmed each play by one-third to one-half, meaning that events and dialogue which helped round out certain figures have been sacrificed. The three heroes' parents, for example, who had pasts and hopes and fears in the original versions, have been reduced to little more than comic cameos here. Similarly, many of the clever details of the future world of Junior Blues seem to have been lost, and without the strong soundtrack of pop hits that adds so much to the environment of the other three plays, it seems a much sketchier setting than before.

Still, even in their abbreviated forms, these plays are terrifically engaging and entertaining. Nash seizes our attention with a handful of appealing characters and dashes off with it, racing along through friendships, breakups, sexual escapades, surprise pregnancies, fights, garage bands, bad poetry, New York getaways, war protests, heart attacks, family revelations, and more for two and a half hours before he lets it go. Nash's facility as a writer is only surpassed by his skill as a performer, bringing to life these 42 characters in distinct -- and distinctly hilarious -- fashion. As always with Nash, the writing and the characterization and the delivery is never less than sure, and as long as he is our guide, you can trust that you'll return to high school with a class act.

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The Holy Cross Quadrilogy, Rob Nash, Freshman Year Sucks!, Sophomore Slump, Junior Blues, Senioritis, Brad Hastings, Obediah Eaves

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