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 Toilet to be considered for a Weekly Theater Award nomination, which brought Nieves, and his production, to the attention of the paper's other critics.
The Toilet's murky story involves a deeply neurotic young couple named Becker and Eva and their even more tormented neighbors and friends, people gripped by feral sexuality and homicidal urges. A few moments into the play a character named Schmidt, addressing an unnamed scientific institute, recalls an odor that sums up the dread and self-loathing saturating this play: “I recognized it as the smell of rotten meat . . . It was then that I noticed the texture of my skin. The clammy, leathery tightness of it. I felt very uncomfortable in my own body that morning.” The story is not without its romantic moments, however, evidenced by this coquettish come-on delivered to Becker by his flirtatious neighbor Sophia: “You can smell all my dirty places. I'll piss in your mouth, baby. C'mon Becker, we can stay in bed all night and lick each other's assholes.”
Will Williams has a lot of The Toilet's ingredients: sexually domineering females, an Eraserhead-like tone of helplessness and medical dread. In it, a buttoned-down Will Williams (Terrance Elton) finds himself stalked by a debonair, if rather flamboyant, version of himself (Jonathon Carter Schall). This “impostor” shadow wants to eventually take over Will's place in the world, which he claims Will has abdicated by living a mousy, unadventurous life.
The production is imaginatively designed, featuring goofy sexual torture/ pleasure devices, and, as in The Toilet, is powered by Schall's darkly charismatic performance. (In both plays Schall has been a frenetic wraith of a figure, a goth-club raconteur absorbed with his own demented visions.) Nieves admits there is a bit of himself contained in the paradigm of the two Wills: “The characters' good and evil sides meant something to me. I've always felt close to that story, maybe because of my own personality as a quiet writer who becomes an exhibitionist on the page.”
As of today, Will Williams has garnered only one review, again from this paper. And, after four years in town, Nieves has no film contacts and no agent. Neither has he forged any acquaintances, much less bonds, with any of the city's other experimental-theater groups. “I pretty much just write and that's it,” he confesses. (He does occasionally see a show at the Complex, which employs him in the box office and which gave him a break on renting its Flight Theater space.) But Nieves is optimistic both about his prospects and about his stay in Los Angeles. “I like L.A.,” he says in his quiet, tentative voice. “It's different. The weather . . .” He trails off. “I go outside to look at the hills sometimes. I like being here.”