By Neil Schulman
Long Branch — Nobody’s Girl, the latest offering by NJ Rep, is simultaneously intense and intensely funny. It opens in a fancy hotel room, where a man in a suit, Anthony (played by Jacob Ware), appears nervous as there’s a knock on the door. He checks his teeth in the mirror – and then his zipper.
For a minute or two, it seems that the scantily-clad woman who opens the door might be a prostitute, especially when Anthony (who keeps insisting his friends call him Ant) gives her cash, and asks if she’s read the things he’s sent her on what he’d like her to be like.
But she’s not there for sex. He wants this woman, played by Layla Khoshnoudi, to pretend to be an Iranian girl who he’s written a novel about, but wants to pass off as a memoir. He wants her to pretend to be a refugee who’s had a horrific life for the agent he’s meeting with.
Things quickly get out of control for Ant as he leaves her alone for a few minutes to take a shower, and, while he’s away, agent Ronnie (Judith Hawking) and her assistant Tyrelle (Gregory Haney) show up, and begin talking to “Currah” about how much they love her story, which they describe as “like an Elizabeth Smart, a Muslim Elizabeth Smart.”
They mistake her confusion and uncertainty at what they’re talking about as a vulnerable girl who’s had a horrible life, and want to turn her into a star. By the time Anthony returns (claiming he was the social worker who found her), they’ve fallen in love with the version of Currah she’s portrayed — somewhat naughtier than Anthony imagined — and want that included in the memoir, to be titled “Nobody’s Girl.”
And, of course, things slowly spiral out of control from there.
Can the characters hold on to their dreams? Can they keep this false story going as it sweeps the nation by storm? Can Anthony keep any control over his work?
The classic comedy elements of a false identity and desires for fortune and fame gets a very contemporary – and at times disturbing – look in Nobody’s Girl.
Each of the four characters in the play initially appears straightforward, but their depths become evident. Ronnie may seem like an over-the-top agent, insisting that only French champagne, properly chilled, is acceptable — but she’s also not the success story she once was, seeing this memoir as her chance to get away from representing authors talking about the paleo diet.
Tyrelle initially appears confidently flamboyant and campy “as a biracial homosexual from a working class background,” as he introduces himself, but breaks down a bit too easily for us to believe he’s comfortable in those high heeled boots.
Why does Currah want to be someone else, to take over the role that Anthony invented for her, and why did he choose her? As for Anthony, anyone who’s willing to make up a person to get a book published can’t be happy with their life, can they?
These issues are all explored in Nobody’s Girl as the story unfolds.
This is the U.S. premier of Rick Viede’s play, which was originally put on in his native Australia. Adaptations have made the story feel thoroughly American. I doubt Ronnie went on NPR to plug the book to Brian Lehrer in the original.
The story of a fake memoir also feels quintessentially American. The Education of Little Tree — a touching story of a young Cherokee — was actually written by a man who participated in the Ku Klux Klan. James Frey’s “A Million Pieces,” a story about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, made Oprah’s Book Club before people learned it was imaginary. The Gay Girl In Damascus blog, that had people around the world fearing for a brave girl with a forbidden lifestyle speaking out in a war-torn nation, was written by an American man.
“The difference between fact and fiction is the way you fetishize it,” says Ronnie at one point in the play. If a story sounds good, we want it to be true.
Viede has also filled the play with tons of subtle details that flesh out the characters. For example, in Anthony’s stories, Currah learned to read English in the shmaltziest way possible (which everyone thinks is inspirational) — by listening to “Interview With The Vampire” on tape and matching the sounds with what she saw in a print book. When Anthony says he and his parents have nothing in common, he mentions that the only thing his mother reads are Anne Rice novels.
And, as is always the case with a NJ Rep production, the details — set design, lighting, costumes — are also exceptional. As is Erica Gould’s direction.
Nobody’s Girl runs through Sept. 20 at NJ Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, with performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and more info, call the theater, 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org.