Presented by Jon Steingart, Jenny Wiener, and Jason Eagan at Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St., NYC, Sept. 9–Oct. 1.
Rob Nash's "Holy Cross Sucks!" would best be described as a one-man John Hughes film: The writer-performer journeys back to the early 1980s and into the lives of three teenage guys during their four years at a Houston Catholic school.
Nash, like Hughes, captures a broad range of types in his main characters. There's Johnny, a recent transplant from Iowa City and a self-described nonconformist. Ben's lisp is the telltale sign that he's gay (he figures it out by the show's end). Overweight George must contend with an alcoholic military father who berates him incessantly.
These three become unlikely best friends on their first day at school, and although squabbles during their years together sometimes create rifts (Nash is particularly good at playing all three boys arguing), the breaks are never permanent. The three are always pulled back together by a crisis (a teacher's battle with AIDS, a ditzy Valley girl's unwanted pregnancy). When this happens, the storytelling can feel overly contrived. This is particularly true when George fathers a son by his stepmother.
Nash, however, compensates for any content-related issues with his utterly charming and well-executed characterizations. He switches with rapid ease between various dialects and demeanors (although some characters, like Johnny and the boys' teacher, Mr. Smith, blur occasionally). A few characters—like the class nerd—amuse in their specificity: Here Nash adopts a comical adenoidal sound and a gross overbite.
On Wilson Chin's delightful set (the stage is backed by a three-dimensional aerial view of the boy's homeroom, complete with wadded papers on the linoleum floor), director Jeff Calhoun keeps Nash in a constant state of energy-filled motion. Jeff Croiter's lighting deftly indicates the play's ever-changing locales, while the endless stream of '80s pop that pours from Jorge Muelle's well-conceived sound design captures the period and this coming-of-age genre perfectly.