Romance or comfort? Adventure or stability? The hotshot from California or the childhood sweetheart from your Midwest hometown? Dating is hard; choosing the right one to marry is nearly impossible.
Director Adam Knight’s warmhearted and hilarious production of The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, NE debuted Monday night at Boone’s Bar, and those were some of the questions open to consideration. Clocking in at just an hour and packed with one-liners, the play would be easy to write off as a charming trifle if it didn’t pack such a hidden emotional punch.
Opening night saw a packed house of nearly 50 people in the upstairs bar at Boone’s, a space that was either cramped or intimate, depending on your preference. But aside from the unusual setting, the play was not far removed from traditional theater. The audience was the audience and the actors were the actors, with little blurring of the line between.
The story: Two months after a painful breakup with his childhood sweetheart Courtney O’Connell (Becca Anderson), lovelorn townie Scott P. “Scooner” Hooner III (David Lee Nelson) discovers that Courtney has not only moved on and found another man, but has already accepted a marriage proposal from him. Desperate for a way to stop the wedding to the so-called “dickwad from California,” Scooner unearths Nebraska’s Morgan Morality Act of 1894, which states that “a man who pledges that he had consensual, virginal intercourse with a woman has the right to challenge the engagement of that woman to any other man by way of public debate.”
Scooner arranges a debate with the new beau, James Hamilton (Paul Rolfes), in the neighborhood bar, to be moderated by Scooner’s best friend Terry (Brenna McNamara). The debate works as a metaphor, like time travel in the recent film Safety Not Guaranteed, in this case standing for the inner angst and decision-weighing of lovers and ex-lovers in states where no such law exists (it’s not a real law in Nebraska, by the way). But it is also a real debate with real stakes.
The set consists of a single microphone on a raised platform. Courtney watches from stage left, her role for much of the show consisting of facial expressions and tortured fidgeting. As Courtney, Anderson does an admirable job portraying both the throes of indecision and the wrath of a wronged ex, building toward what we can only assume will be a complete emotional meltdown.
As Terry, McNamara plays the straight foil to the desperate, zany Scooner. When she dutifully sets up the debate and introduces herself as the “political and agricultural reporter for the Columbus Telegram,” we are reminded of the smallness of the debate, the smallness of the town, and the smallness of an ever-consolidating news industry.
Rolfes, dressed in a sweater and fitted jeans, portrays an almost frustratingly likable James, complicating the classic cheer-for-the-underdog formula of romantic comedies. From his reserved facial expressions to his gentle debating style, he is the picture of reasonableness and a heck of a good sport about the whole thing.
Nelson, best known for his über-personal one-man shows, inhabits the character of Scooner with manic energy and flailing abandon, earning big laughs and emotional buy-in. But his comedy is accented by a dark turn of mind. With no stage lighting, the audience really is sitting in the bar with Scooner, smelling the beer on his breath and feeling his self-flagellation. Memorably, the room went silent when his voice broke while singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
Playwright Mat Smart does an admirable job playing with loyalty. Halfway through the show, one audience member could be heard remarking, “James should run like the wind. They’re both crazy.”
In the end, Courtney faces the toughest predicament. Her anguish shows the impossibility of distancing yourself from yourself, of seeing your own love life objectively. The heart is deceitful above all things — who can know it?