By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Peter J. Nieves got a lot of admiring comments around the Weekly when his expressionist play The Toilet opened at the Complex this past February. It was enigmatic, daring - and so unlike most of what we see at that venue. Still, one question nagged: Were Nieves and his play for real? Though visually arresting, his Bright Lucifer production was perhaps a little too expressionistic, lending an uneasy feeling of it being derivative, or simply parodic. The look was dark, jagged and angular; the tone was bleak, the meaning obscure; the play featured a menacing doctor as well as people suffering from paranoia, sexual neurosis - and, if that weren't enough, German names. It was not, in other words, a story about the typical town involved in the typical daydream, unless that town was Weimar Berlin as depicted on a UFA backlot. "The Toilet of Dr. Caligari," wrote one critic in his program's margin.
Nine months later Nieves and his crew are back, this time with more menace, non sequitur dialogue and sexual implosion. The name for this hourlong venture is Will Williams, Nieves' free interpretation of "William Wilson," Edgar Allan Poe's short story about a man haunted by a doppelgänger. Despite Poe's universal popularity, you won't find a Roger Corman adaptation of this work starring Vince Price on the video racks, although Louis Malle did work a fairly straightforward version of it into the 1968 Spirits of the Dead trilogy of Poe stories.
The play, now running at the Flight Theater, is strange, annoying and funny, but more important, confirms that Nieves is sincere in his expressions of alienation and that his writing is not the pastime of a dilettante flexing his mimetic skills. How he got to Theater Row is not an ordinary story, but Nieves is no ordinary playwright.
At 27, he is a tall, lanky figure exuding cerebral remoteness and the need of a haircut. Like a growing number of new theater artists, he came to theater from a desire to break into film, although he eschewed the usual apprenticeships of college, internships, agents, friends' projects, etc. After graduating from high school in Brooklyn, where he had spent his entire life, he felt no desire to go to a film or drama school. "I'm not big on schooling," he says in a soft, laconic Flatbush voice. "It's not an option for me, I don't have the discipline." Instead, he gathered together some belongings one day in 1994 and headed to Los Angeles.
Nieves did not become an overnight sensation, but was absorbed by the city that eats up talents like a whale swallowing krill. (His brother, Joe, followed him a year later and is currently acting at the Zoo Theater in Boys' Life.)At heart shy and unsocial, he had zero networking skills, which didn't help in a town where 90 percent of the population is waiting for a phone call. Eventually Nieves, who cites Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel and David Cronenberg as his main influences, saw theater as an entry into film, and decided that producing and directing a work of his own was its key. After four years of waiting tables, reading and writing, he had The Toilet, a play that he believed was ready for staging, something that audiences could connect with. (He gave childhood friend Jason Stella, who would design the play's sound, co-writing credit for helping him sharpen The Toilet's ideas.)
A casting call in Drama-Logue brought him an ensemble that he was happy with, and Nieves spent five months rehearsing his play. Everyone clicked, and from those associations was born Bright Lucifer (the name comes from an obscure Welles play). "I knew I had some talented and creative people," he says. "I take their ideas and shape them to my vision - I don't tell them what I want." The only problem was money: He had none, and no contacts to raise it. Enter Mr. Moe Greenblatt.
The stocky, middle-aged Greenblatt, who hails from the Marine Park section of Nieves' New York borough, had known the playwright since the time Peter played Little League baseball with his son. They had kept in touch over the years, and one day, after Nieves mentioned in a phone call that he was having trouble scaring up press coverage for The Toilet, Greenblatt agreed to fly out to the Coast and help out. He does not fit the usual profile of a theater promoter. A New York City fireman retired because of injuries, Greenblatt had always believed in Nieves' talent, and now devoted himself to seeing that L.A. would too.
"I don't even sit in the theater," says Greenblatt in his unfiltered Brooklynese, "because my back condition makes it uncomfortable for me to sit long. But I was always involved with children - Little League, the works. Peter was always a good kid. When he got to L.A. he didn't ask me for financial help, but I saw he needed it. So I came out for three weeks and stayed on the phone calling reviewers."
Team Peter and Moe, strangers to the nuances of theatrical publicity, tried some unconventional approaches to interest reviewers in The Toilet. "Peter had the idea to send a roll of toilet paper to critics," Greenblatt says, "so I sent some out. But [Drama-Logue's] Polly Warfield got insulted. She told me it was the worst thing she'd ever gotten in the mail." But the gag worked with the bathroom-tissue-deprived L.A. Weekly, which gave The Toilet its sole notice. Martín Hernández's review was a rave, noting that "Nieves displays a flair for characterization, movement and staging which, with his terrific ensemble, works in the service of refreshing and fearless theater." Hernández then forwarded The Toiletto be considered for a Weekly Theater Award nomination, which brought Nieves, and his production, to the attention of the paper's other critics.