Review: “Nice Girl” (Raven Theatre)

Lots of perfect little details ensure that “Nice Girl” is a perfect, lived-in 1984; stacks of Jane Fonda workout tapes, an ashtray on every table and cans of TAB for eager hands. This slick design, coupled with a deluge of timeless laughs, is author Melissa Ross and director Lauren Shouse’s way of distracting us for what “Nice Girl” has in abundance: despair. It’s a blistering picture of wasted time, hollowness, and the feeling of being trapped that resonates no matter what decade you reside in.

Josephine (Lucy Carpetyan) is an underpaid secretary, taking care of her mother Francine (Lynne Baker), who is either ailing, or just likes to be doted on. She’s also fielding new intrusions from co-worker Sherry (Stella Martin), who was just looking for a sounding board for her sexual frustrations until a glimpse into Jo’s loneliness gives her new purpose: “I’m on a mission to get you laid.”

Jo’s only wish is to wrench herself out of her circle’s microscope slide glass and get lost again in her own comforting tedium. That is, until she happens on Donny (Benjamin Sprunger) a handsome old friend, who is happy to lure Jo into participating in her own life, and boost his own diminishing returns.

In a strange way, “Nice Girl” is about the myriad ways people have combated (and still combat) their loneliness. You could apply pressure and guilt to ensure the people you rely on don’t leave, you could avoid your own emotional pitfalls by throwing yourself into someone else’s, you could even compartmentalize the angst you feel about your mistakes by starting fresh with new people! What gives us hope for Jo is the way she unmoors herself from the expectations others have. Her accepting relationship with her own failures and her reluctance to be controlled could be her path to escape.

Lucy Carpetyan and Lynne Baker are perfect as a mother and daughter too smart to fall for each other any more. They’ve never had to set boundaries before Jo’s sudden sprint to adulthood, so there’s a mountain of resentment behind everything. Lucy Carpetyan writes a novel in the 10 seconds Jo vaults from sobbing after a fraught exchange with her mother, to jubilant when she remembers she’s wearing Donny’s jacket. With that, please turn your attention to Benjamin Sprunger’s crass and surly beefcake Donny, and Stella Martin’s relentlessly positive open-book, Sherry. These expert thieves have stolen every available laugh in “Nice Girl”, and will use their incredibly sharp wit and timing to steal your allegiance, too.

But, not everything about “Nice Girl” ends up being a good fit. Thick Boston accents come out strong, and envelop us in a way that feels cartoonish in some moments. Author Melissa Ross tries to tie her characters together with a single love story thread, but the groundwork of these relationships seems hastily established. Instead of the shock we should feel when all is revealed, we’re doing the mental math to account for these characters’ crossed paths, and our suspension of disbelief starts to unravel.

Director Lauren Shouse brings specificity to a show that benefits from every flourish. It feels real down to the copper jello molds mounted on the kitchen walls & hum of the microwave. However, I’d have traded any one of these perfect details to have seen actors of color on stage. If it’s simpler for a story of an era, like of “Nice Girl” to embrace a historic realism, and cast only Caucasian performers, we have to start asking why. What makes this a valid choice? How does this production foster diversity on Chicago’s stages?

DICE RATING: d10 — Worth Going To

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A life put on hold gets a jumper cable blast.

Show: “Nice Girl”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N. Clark St.)