Campo Santo takes Denis Johnson's Nobody Move for a spin that never leaves the driveway
THEATER Call it one step back in the middle of a big leap forward. Intersection for the Arts and resident theater company Campo Santo marks the organization's recent move to the Chronicle Building with a hobbled world premiere adaptation of Denis Johnson's latest novel, Nobody Move. The title for Johnson's fleet, cool, and witty crime noir comes from a reggae lyric: "Nobody move, nobody get hurt." A cautionary line that sounds too prescient under the circumstances, but life moves whether we like it or not.
Personally, I don't like it, at least this week. Watching Campo Santo flail with Denis Johnson material is a bummer that feels like the end of a winning streak. Johnson, a protean American author (and Campo Santo's playwright in residence), turned midcareer to playwriting after contact with the exceptional San Francisco theater company back in 1999. His close collaboration with Campo Santo led to some of the more vibrant and thrilling productions of the last decade, including Soul of a Whore and Hell Hound on My Trail. Even less successful outings like 2006's Purvis were more than worthwhile, full of bold ideas and strong take-no-prisoners performances.
No such inspired passion or theatrical muscularity arises from Nobody Move, which centers on the California adventures of one Jimmy Luntz.
Many a first-glance would peg Luntz (Daveed Diggs) as a loser, but this oddball amateur musician and inveterate gambler is sure he was "born lucky." Luntz, however, has owed a gangster from Alhambra named Juarez (Tommy Shepherd) a little too much for a little too long. He narrowly escapes retribution from Gambol (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), Juarez's strong arm, by popping him one in the leg and making for the mountains along the Feather River. There he meets a tough, boozy Indian beauty named Anita (Catherine Castellanos) who has been set up to take the fall for an embezzlement scheme by her powerful ex-husband and a corrupt judge. Luntz and Anita form a lopsided marriage of lust and convenience, with Luntz promising to help her steal the stolen money as they hide out together at a sad motorcycle clubhouse operated by former Luntz associate Capra (Michael Torres) and his high-strung lover Sol (Brian Rivera). Meanwhile, a veteran in Juarez's employ named Mary (Margo Hall) nurses Gambol back to his ugly self and begins a curious romance with the bad man as he plots sadistic, testicle-chomping revenge against lucky Luntz.
Lunching on Luntz's nuts is just one plot-driver, but a solid one. At the very least, it should have created — as it does in the novel — a wincing degree of suspense. Director-adapter Sean San José assembles a cast of Campo Santo regulars who should be more than up for the job. But an unmoving note is struck from the very first lines. Diggs broadcasts too loudly and manically to allow us much entry or sympathy for our hero. And though Castellanos gets him to cool down a bit, just about everyone else is over-amped too, turning the cool-jazz tone of Johnson's enjoyable prose into a screechy cacophony.
There are, nevertheless, some choice moments here and there, as you'd expect from the likes of a Margo Hall or Michael Torres, who both provide some much needed ballast. But the actors are also up against a script that never quite stands firmly on its own legs, but rather — like the injured psychopathic gangster Gambol (infused with plenty of bluster and spleen by Lacy) — hops painfully from one place to the next. The dialogue — originally sharp, lean and consistently funny noir-repartee — comes across here as strained and unnecessarily overloaded by detail confined to descriptive passages in the novel. As is, the play moves, but skittishly, in a loud and self-conscious way that prevents any serious engagement with either the characters or the story.